We are now in a time of public collapse, known as “social distancing.” Perhaps anti-social distancing is a more accurate label. Our global economy is proving to be more fragile than we expected. And it seems there are limits to what our scientific knowledge and technology can accomplish: we are vulnerable to viruses, be they transmitted through wires spanning thousands of miles or via the intimate proximity of our bodies.
We are being instructed to stay home and avoid crowds, which is not the sort of advice most Americans want to hear. Most of us have left the rural, open spaces and live in human-filled cities where we must commute daily or travel for business, often packed together tightly on buses or trains or jets. Solitary retreat is against the spirit of capitalism; Thoreau’s Walden is today considered a masterpiece of prose, but did his little experiment in social distancing make Thoreau any money? Not much. Thoreau had to depend on the kindness of friends who fortunately were not as frugal and had bigger houses than he did.
But if we are confined to more solitary spaces by a very social virus, a book such as Walden or a Thoreau-like walk in the woods is a healthy alternative to online panic. Too much social connection is bad for the body and soul, as stress is said to lessen one’s immunity. And we tend to think better and achieve at least an inner peace if we separate ourselves a bit. Here’s how one of Robert Frost’s characters puts it in conversation with a friend at the end of “Build Soil”:
Probably but you’re far too fast and strong
For my mind to keep working in your presence.
I can tell better after I get home,
Better a month from now when cutting posts
Or mending fence it all comes back to me
What I was thinking when you interrupted
My life-train logic. I agree with you
We’re too unseparate. And going home
From company means coming to our senses.
“Senses” here, of course, is meant in both senses of the word as Frost plays upon the phrase “come to your senses” or “I came to my senses.” Solitude brings us to our senses: we see and think clearly. We are not swayed and manipulated by the overbearing presence of others. We do not join any mobs or movements; we do very local, private things that bring us separate joys and may well improve conditions on earth on a small scale. Tend our gardens. Read a book. Bake a pie. Plant a tree. Write a letter. Maybe write a poem that very few people (or none besides the writer) will ever see. Speaking of poems, let’s go back to Frost’s “Build Soil”, subtitled “A Political Pastoral”:
Let me be the one To do what is done My share at least lest I be empty-idle. Keep off each other and keep each other off. You see the beauty of my proposal is It needn't wait on general revolution. I bid you to a one-man revolution The only revolution that is coming. We're too unseparate out among each other With goods to sell and notions to impart.
There’s that odd word again–unseparate.
These days we are bid to be unseparate by joining many revolutions, usually of the political sort. Bernie Sanders often speaks of “revolution”, albeit one that involves voting and use of the word “socialism.” And there are various kinds of “identity” political movements for Americans to join, depending on how you identify yourself and whether you are granted admission to the club. But if you just want to be yourself in all your personal complexity you’ll have to settle for Frost’s “one-man revolution.” Or one-woman revolution if that’s how you identify. Not that there are not reasons and times for large groups and mass cooperation and political partying. But let us err, at least in this time of virus, on the side of retreat and meditation, take joy and meaning from small, quiet tasks and separate ourselves. Thoreau wrote somewhere that he wouldn’t bother to run around the corner to see the world come to an end. That’s the sort of separatist attitude we need these days.
Live where you are, my fellow Americans, my fellow humanity on earth. Let’s all, privately and quietly, come to our senses. Each of us can be the one to do what can be done.