【明報專訊】SOCIAL distancing will be remembered as one of the key phrases that define 2020. Very soon after we were forced to practise social distancing, many people began to feel the effects of being alone. We began to contemplate its meaning. Even if we are cramped in our small apartment with family members during the lockdown period, we inevitably confront moments of solitude when we are overwhelmed by the feelings of being cut off from our friends, co-workers, and partners.
Most people's feeling about solitude ranges from disdain to respect. So we are quite polarised in our view of it. When monks and nuns entered a life of solitude in monastery or temple in medieval times, seclusion (與世隔絕) was seen as a noble pursuit. But in modern times, which are characterised by rapid urbanisation and ever-increasing need for communication and networking, social interaction is seen as a normal, preferred way of life. In this light, solitary people are often seen as strange people. They are associated with mental illnesses such as depression. Anti-social people are seen as incapable of developing normal relationships. Hidden in their own private homes for days on end (連續地), the young, often male, loners are often seen as socially awkward, having low self-esteem, and obsessed with certain pop female idols even if they are just manga characters. In Hong Kong, some people even call them ''poisonous men''.
Yet when life becomes so busy and work can be frustrating, our feelings about solitude are gradually changing. Solitary isolation is gradually being encouraged by those who support meditation or mindfulness practice. Far from being seen as a pathology, solitude is seen as nurturing a positive mental state. Spending time away from family and friends, and maybe going to a remote island for a few days, can refresh our mind and soul. ''Being alone is a skill. And, just like any other skill, you can get better at it with practice,'' says Sigal Samuel, a writer on ethics, technology and religion.
With the coronavirus pandemic, many of us have felt the blessings of slowing down and spending more time at home, even as we have had to fight boredom. But no matter how we see solitude — as negative or positive — let's not forget those who are struck by the disease in isolation wards, cut off from loved ones, and have to confront the fear of illness and possible death alone. There is much to ponder about solitude, even if or after the pandemic recedes.
John Erni is a university professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. He thinks everyday culture is complex but always enchanting.