Cabin Fever: The Philosophy of Isolation with Lars Svendsen

How the COVID-19 pandemic may provide us with something more than just fear and loneliness

“So much is at stake now, and this pandemic could be game changer.”
 — Lars Svensen

In his timeless book, Walden, Henry David Thoreau fittingly devotes a short chapter to his experience with solitude during his two year stay in a small cabin that he had built with his own hands in 1845. The work details his philosophical experiences with self-sufficiency while he willingly and enthusiastically did something that we’re all currently doing: self-isolating.

“I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighbourhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was something unpleasant.” 
— H.D.T.

As we find ourselves in the midst of a collective self-confinement like none we’ve experienced in our lifetimes, the world watches itself slowly reformulate into something that looks wholly unfamiliar from what we’re used to. 

Lockdown’s aren’t anything new. They’ve occurred before under varying contexts, crises and tragedies that have sparked either a need for emergency acts or martial law that sought to keep people confined to their homes for their own well being.

In our lifetime, however, it’s a relatively new phenomenon and, under the current context, it’s something wholly unprecedented. And so I sought to get an opinion from someone who knows about this topic, about what can be expected from the blend of fear and isolation that many of us currently find ourselves steeped in. 

Lars Svendsen has written a number of works which seek to explore the philosophical nature of concepts such as boredom and loneliness; he recently provided me with some of his insights as to what we can expect as we self-isolate in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Q: In a time and place whereby we’re facing the prospect of lengthy lockdowns and strict social distancing practices, what do you expect us to (either collectively or individually) experience on a philosophical level?

A: In the short term, I guess that fear is probably the most dominant emotion. Or at least it should be, as this pandemic will have such enormous consequences not only in terms of fatalities and long-term health impact, but to the economy, to people’s livelihood, to upholding our central social institutions, to social stability etc. 

So much is at stake now, and this pandemic could be game changer. It is reasonable to fearful of all this. You fear because you care. A person who does not fear anything is someone who does not care about anything. And fear will be an appropriate emotional response, as it will also induce you to certain things in a slightly different way, to keep longer distance [from] others when you talk to them, wash your hands whenever you’ve been outside, and so on. Fear can motivate you to act in a rational way.

However, there is an essential difference between fear and panic. It is, for instance, crucial that one maintains a fundamental trust in others, even in the midst of this threat.

Q: You yourself have written about both the negative and positive aspects of loneliness, for instance, and found that it may significant impact our quality of life but it can also be conducive to some of our best moments. What kind of productive of helpful introspection do you think can be cultivated from this tense pandemic?

A: As one becomes more adjusted to this new situation, boredom might be next on the list of what life currently has to offer you. Boredom is essentially a feeling of discomfort that informs you that your need for personal meaning is not being met. 

This could increase now because the lockdown will cut a lot of people off from the sort of activities that have been sources of meaning for them. This could motivate them to act foolishly, to engage in exactly the sort of behavior that would expose them to the virus and also to put others at risk. 

So one would rather have to look for other sources of meaning, and to use the empty space that is opened up by boredom to see if one could reconfigure one’s life.

Boredom can be an invitation to change one’s life. It is not necessarily something one should avoid at all cost, but rather accept sometimes, viewing it as an invitation for self-reflection.

Q: Your work has, to some extent, implied that there is too little solitude in modern society. Under the circumstances of this event, can there be too much solitude? Can any meaning be cultivated from such instances of solitude?

A: As for meaning in life, our relation to a few people makes up a
significant part of it for most of us. And this leads us to the problem of loneliness. Loneliness is feeling of pain or discomfort that informs us that our need for attachment to others is not being satisfied. This might increase now, as many people are in a lockdown. 

However, it is possible to transform loneliness into solitude. The difference between the two essentially consists in what sort of relation you have to yourself in your condition, if you live in state defined by the absence of others or the presence of yourself to yourself, if you manage to, strictly speaking, be in your own company. 

Do you manage to establish a certain measure of emotional self-sufficiency? If so, you again open up a space for self-reflection. However, it is essential for solitude that there is a path back to the others, as we are social animals. Permanent solitude will degenerate into loneliness.

This pandemic does offer some possibility for personal growth, for reconsidering the sort of life one is living, but it also contains the possibility for personal disaster.

“Can we not do without the society of our gossips a little while under these circumstances — have our own thoughts to cheer us?” 
— H.D.T. 

Despite finishing on a dark note, Lars’ take is ultimately worth contextualizing as a learning process for all of us who find ourselves in a completely new reality, whereby we’re off of work for a while or disentangled from our usual routines.

This need not be framed as a punishment as much as it ought to be considered an opportunity, maybe to start anew or just to sit in reflection for an indefinite period of time while we wait this thing out. 

Scientific reports and data suggest that, in the days following 9/11, stress levels amongst whales (curiously determined via their collected fecal matter) had noticeable dropped, assumingly due to the halting of cargo ship and sea transports which amounted to a drastic drop in underwater noise pollution. Other accounts went as far as to say that whales could communicate during these days like they had never been able to. 

Maybe, in this quiet and confusing time, we ourselves can sink into the deeper waters and refuges of our own minds, pushing past tendencies of concern or fear to learn or hear something we would have otherwise never had the opportunity to encounter. 

To close out with the words of Thoreau:

“I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.” 

Lars Svendsen's works are available on Amazon

Photo credit Jeremy Bishop