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Pandemic isolation

Facing the dark side of enforced solitude.

In Genesis, one of the first things God says about humans before the Fall is “it is not good that the man should be alone” (2:18). We are alone in many ways right now. Ten months into this pandemic, in the midst of a long winter, many of us are feeling the effects of social isolation. For others, such as inmates in solitary conditions in Canadian prisons, isolation presents a graver issue, one currently before the courts in this country.

When I was an undergraduate, Professor Hebb described sensory deprivation experiments in my intro psych course. Students were paid $20 a day (a great wage in the early 50s) to lie on a bed for 24 hours, leaving only for meals and trips to the washroom, with restricted perceptual input. They wore translucent visors that reduced visual input; their hands were in cotton gloves and cardboard cuffs, and any sound was restricted with U-shaped pillows and background noise.

Students went into these experiments expecting to review their studies or plan term papers, but found that their ability to think clearly was impaired. Most only lasted a few days before quitting. Striking and complex hallucinations occurred. The research suggested that extreme boredom could quickly produce profound negative psychological changes.

The sensory deprivation studies proved controversial when it was revealed they were funded by government defense and intelligence agencies. These agencies were interested in using these sensory deprivation techniques for “brainwashing and interrogation” practices. And, unfortunately, their lessons are still being applied today.

In solitary

Canadian prisons are under criticism from our courts for their use of extended periods of solitary confinement, which has been defined by the UN as isolation for 22 hours a day without meaningful human contact. It is a punishment that should only be used as a last resort. In response to court orders, the prison system is instituting a practice called “structured intervention units,” which are supposed to provide four hours outside the prisoners’ cell. Partially because of the pandemic, prisons have failed to do this, and solitary confinement is still an issue in our prison system.

These studies and situations make clear that the words of the Lord in Genesis are profound and essential. Because of covid, we are all experiencing, to some degree, the social isolation seen in the sensory deprivation studies and in our prisons. We do not see friends, and many of us have been prevented from seeing family members. Events like weddings, baptisms and funerals are not the same without the people we love. The isolation is painful and “not good.”

Because of the pandemic, social isolation is a sacrifice we need to make. Without it, many more people would fall ill, suffer long-term health issues, and even die. As God’s children, we should strive to reduce the negative effects of these necessary restrictions.

Meanwhile, don’t forget that the road to God is still open; prayer is a gift that can link us to the Son and the Father who walk with us. Since Jesus came, we can never be truly alone; he joins us through his Spirit. Second, technology can be our friend and needs to be used – from phone calls to Facetime, technology provides a way to maintain contact. But not everyone has or is comfortable using these technologies, so we need to reach out to the isolated and not tech-savvy. Third, we can invite single individuals to join our social circle. Many Christian communities set an extra place at the table to permit Christ to join them, and we should recognize that our solitary neighbour can be Christ to us. Fourth, some people deal with isolation better; introverts may have an easier time than extroverts, so be aware that individual needs differ. Pray accordingly for one another. Finally, be generous, recognize the pressure we are all living under, and be slow to criticize; we all make mistakes.

As we all live through this time of isolation, may we take comfort in the God who cared enough about us that he wouldn’t let us live alone but sent his son to walk among us.

  • Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

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