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Weeds: Stuck in solitary

I’ve spent a lot of my time on Earth alone. Farming has meant many hours alone on a tractor or working in the yard. A part-time job in the summer has me walking fields, just me, the crops, and the fenceline. Going back, my older siblings were leaving home when I showed up. Close brother Dean spent school weeks at Braille School in Faribault, so I was alone a lot growing up.

The years we were raising our kids were an exception. There were people around then. A bit of time alone early in the morning felt like a gift. Sometimes the kids had friends over making a great racket, and I was glad to sneak off to a tractor, leaving Pam to enforcement duties.

There is a large difference among us when it comes to time we spend alone. If you work in an office or shop full of people and come home to a houseful of kids, about the only time you’re alone is when you’re asleep. That’s if you don’t count that other person in the bed. Sometimes being alone is a great luxury. I think of mothers with toddlers who wish they could spend a minute alone in the bathroom.

Then, there are people who live alone for a variety of reasons. These range from young and starting out, to old and everyone else is gone. Some choose to live by themselves; others have it thrust upon them.

It’s partly a factor for each of us whether we are an extrovert or an introvert how we feel about time alone. An extrovert, by definition, craves interaction and is energized by that. The introvert is drained by steady human contact and craves time alone to regroup, reflect, and relax. Most of us are some of each, depending on the day.

I am generally comfortable alone and like keeping company with me. I tend to introvert, although wife Pam would argue that isn’t true. Admittedly I often engage random people in line or at bar rails in conversation. That has led to hearing whole life stories sometimes. I tell Pam these are nervous reactions on my part to situations, like standing next to someone.

I’d like to say I spend all this time by myself in introspection and deep thought. It could even be in prayer. Unfortunately, I am an easily distracted introvert. Often, I have a radio on and a cell phone pinging at me in recent years. These can turn into noise filling my head. I try to spend time in communication with God. But that often ends with, “What were we talking about God?”

Time spent alone does allow me to write these columns in my head before putting them to paper. Well, computer screen. A danger with being by yourself can be the chance to overthink something given enough time. One can think themselves into a funk now and then when you are alone. A friend nearby might tell you, “That doesn’t make any sense,” and save you some agony.

I think we all seek balance between solitary and social time. Ideally, we would get the right amount of interaction with other human beings to allow us to do some good and fill our cup of curiosity each day. We know we have been charged to love our neighbor (and enemy). There are ways to do that even in solitude. Caring for the Earth, nurturing a place that will be passed on, even just not wasting resources that can be used by others. Of course, we can always use spare moments to pray for our fellow travelers.

As Covid Winter descends (that just sounds depressing), whatever our situation in life will be concentrated and intensified. If we live in a house full of people, they are around more than normal, and you might be faced with intense busyness around you. If you live alone, it is the opposite, with less visitors and reduced events out of the home.

Circumstances affect our efforts to balance time alone and time together in normal times. Curveballs can be thrown at us any day. But in this time of quarantine and pandemic, it’s more fastballs up at your head than curveballs.

There are people living alone who are struggling right now. I think of a bachelor farmer or retired guy in town. They might have gone for coffee or a beer with a group every day, and now that is taken away. Maybe worse than being alone, are those who are trapped with an unkind or even abusive other.

It calls to mind the early settlers. There are stories of men and women trying to set up a life on the unforgiving frontier. Women going insane were commonly reported, but there were men, too. According to the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, “driven to madness by the isolation, hardships, and environment of the settlement experience…often buried in unmarked graves, their illnesses became dark family secrets, their individual stories are lost to history.”

Our daughter is employed by the United Nations working in Human Rights. It’s interesting that the UN considers solitary confinement a potential type of torture that is inhumane and illegal according to international law. In a statement issued last year about concerns of excessive use in the United States, the UN said:

“The severe and often irreparable psychological and physical consequences of solitary confinement and social exclusion are well documented and can range from progressively severe forms of anxiety, stress, and depression to cognitive impairment and suicidal tendencies. This deliberate infliction of severe mental pain or suffering may well amount to psychological torture.”

Coming out of this difficult pandemic there are going to be individuals who will need support and healing. All of us should look around and see where we can bring light to someone’s darkness.

A final depressing thought on loneliness. I am sure the saddest piece of music ever written was by Hank Williams. Hank wrote this in 1949, feeling tormented in a relationship at the time:

“Hear that lonesome whippoorwill

He sounds too blue to fly

The midnight train is whining low

I’m so lonesome I could cry.”

If you decide to listen to that song, please, follow it up with something cheery. Maybe a good polka. We need that right now.

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