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Opinion >  Column

Faith and Values: Pandemic loneliness can help us learn more about ourselves

Tracy Simmons is an editor of Spokane Faith and Values and a lecturer of journalism at Washington State University.  (Tracy Simmons)
Tracy Simmons is an editor of Spokane Faith and Values and a lecturer of journalism at Washington State University. (Tracy Simmons)

A few months ago I wrote about how being an introvert has helped me through COVID isolation.

But that was in the summer, and fall, when during downtime I could jump on my bicycle and escape for hours, or go on a hike without sinking in mud. It wasn’t gray all day and the sun didn’t set by supper. It wasn’t cold.

For the past five weeks I’ve been on winter break, so haven’t been teaching classes at WSU. In a normal year, that would be great! I would travel or visit with friends. This year, though, it’s a little too much time alone. I didn’t think it was responsible to go anywhere, so I stayed put.

I’ve been solo a long time, not just during COVID.

I don’t have any siblings or parents, no partner. Each year I mark holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas by going on a hike – just me and the dog.

Even for a pro like me, though, this isolation is getting hard.

Being alone has never been my choice. It often seems loneliness is my only companion. It’s loudest in the quiet mornings and evenings, and whenever the activity stops. I suppose that’s why I work two jobs – sometimes three – and stay busy.

COVID, though, has forced me to listen to my lonesomeness, especially these past five weeks, instead of drowning it out.

It’s been trying to tell me something, to teach me something.

It’s saying I have a choice.

I can’t control that loneliness is a part of my life, but I can control how I respond to it. When I feel its weight around my shoulders, trying to push me down, I first need to recognize that’s what’s happening.

Do I give in and sink into a place of self-loathing and sadness?

Some days I have. Those days are long and fruitless. They make the next day all that much harder to start, because I have to shake off the regret of having wasted so much time sulking.

I try to remember that feeling when I’m forlorn again.

I counter it by doing something I know will make me happy – a dog walk, a bike ride on my indoor trainer, reading a good book, listening to loud music.

The loneliness is still there, but in these moments its hostility isn’t winning anymore.

Recently a friend told me she thought the ”power of positive thinking” was overrated. I somewhat agree. I don’t think positive thoughts will fix everything, but I do think negative thoughts can be ruinous.

Loneliness doesn’t have to be viewed as a bad thing. Maybe it just needs some reframing.

This constant companion of mine has helped me grow. It’s teaching me mindfulness, intentionality, choice – but most importantly, how to appreciate my own company.

The state of being “alone” actually used to mean, in Old English, “wholly” and “oneself.” Eventually it was shortened and came to suggest something negative. But if you look at its original use, being alone means being ”wholly oneself.” (Note: I’m not a linguist, just love language.)

It’s taken COVID for me to quiet my mind long enough to hear my thoughts, and transform loneliness into something good: becoming wholly myself.

I’m excited to see who I am at then end of this.

Remember, as Janet Fitch wrote in “White Oleander,” “Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow.”

Tracy Simmons, a longtime religion reporter, is a Washington State University lecturer and the editor of SpokaneFāVS, a website dedicated to covering faith, ethics and values in the Spokane region.

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