With a bit of reframing, we can start to embrace this time for the opportunities it offers
Social distancing is nothing new for writer Sara Maitland. Sara has lived happily alone, except for her ageing terrier Zoe, on the Galloway moors in southwest Scotland for 20 years. Her nearest neighbour is more than a mile away.
The 70-year-old author is best known for her books How to Be Alone and A Book of Silence, which explore the importance of silence and solitude, and she has lived a solitary life since her marriage ended. “I didn’t wake up one morning and decide to live a solitary life,” she says. “I rather grew into it. But I absolutely loved it.”
Sara feels the flood of mental health advice for those who live alone and are now cut off from physical visits from family and friends is wrongly directed.
“We must stop talking about self-isolation and start talking about solitude because self-isolation sounds awful and solitude sounds nice. It would have a completely different feel.”
This is Sara’s advice for living healthily and happily while in isolation:
- Use the time to tackle a weightier book than usual. Sara suggests Robinson Crusoe and A Journal of the Plague Year, both by Daniel Defoe, as “he covers two topics that we are dealing with now”.
- Take up a handicraft, or rediscover one with the help of the internet. This gives your hands rhythm and comfort, and leaves you with an actual product.
- Find solace in prayer or meditation.
- Most importantly, remember that history shows that solitude needn’t be mentally damaging. “In 305 AD, St Anthony came out from 20 years of solitude and a whole crowd gathered, and everyone was surprised he was both healthy and sane.
“Solitude is good for creativity, for self-knowledge and spirituality.”
- Sara also points to French sailor Bernard Moitessier, who grew up in what is now Vietnam, and who would have won the first Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a nonstop solo round-the-world yacht race held in the late 1960s. He decided, however, not to head for the finish line but continue sailing for three more months, so much was his state of solitude helping him mentally.
As part of her research for a new book, last autumn, Sara spent 40 days travelling in silence across the Sinai Desert in Egypt, ending at St Catherine’s Monastery, an ancient church which also houses a mosque. She found the journey good for her soul, but she says she has huge sympathy for those who are experiencing less solitude because they are now with family 24 hours a day or have additional responsibilities such as childcare.
Sara herself is actually less silent than usual. “I am talking more – I am writing five personal emails a day and [making] three phone calls. I have a large family, we need to keep in touch with each other at this time.”