Alone Together

words by william defebaugh

photograph by ashish shah

 

Every Friday, Atmos editor-in-chief William Defebaugh reflects on the week in climate and culture, sharing stories of insight and inspiration.

words by william defebaugh

photograph by ashish shah

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“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.” —Rainer Maria Rilke

 

On Wednesday night, I couldn’t sleep. For the first time since coronavirus took hold of our world, I felt a tightness in my chest I had not felt in years. I scrolled through the latest news—stories of overrun hospitals and bodycounts—which only made things worse. Maybe it was a moment of feeling into the collective fear or maybe it was a delayed dawning of my own. Maybe it was all this time alone starting to get to me.

 

The next morning, I woke up to a message from my 12-year-old sister who lives in Tacoma, Washington. She had been reading about the surge of cases in New York City and wanted to make sure I was okay. She told me that if I needed food, she would send it to me. I thought about her running around our kitchen trying to decide what I might need, her small hands packing up a box of nonperishables. I started to cry.

 

In moments when I feel the weight of what’s happening, I think about the billions of people around the world who are staying home to protect people they have never met. I think about the creative ways we are learning to connect with one another, to lift each other up. I think about the apparel companies making masks and the tech companies sourcing supplies for ventilators. I think about the nurses and doctors dispensing their wisdom while navigating a system that has failed us, fighting on the frontlines for strangers who are not really strangers at all. I think we are finally beginning to understand that.

 

Human beings are a social species; we rely on cooperation and community to survive. Most of us are not accustomed to this much time alone. But solitude is crucial to our survival as well—for without it, there can be no space for self-reflection. And without self-reflection, we cannot be conscious. As a collective, we have been unconscious for too long, driven by insensate desire, and our very world has paid the price.

 

For better or worse, nature has put us in a time out. Each of us is being forced to take a long hard look in the mirror, to reflect on who we have become and what we stand for. Many will continue to resist their reflection; many more will look it straight in the eye and hold space for one another to do the same.

 

I believe that someday we will look back on the time of the coronavirus as the moment the world woke up, and a reminder of how extraordinarily good people can be. I believe we will remember this as a time when all of the people of this world stood guard over the solitude of one another.

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