Yesterday I was listening to a podcast where Elizabeth Gilbert, well-known speaker and best-selling author of Eat Pray Love, City of Girls and Big Magic shared some thoughts around her own experience of living in Covid-19 isolation in the USA.
She spoke to so many facets of this unexpected journey we are all negotiating together, however one idea in particular resonated with me on a very profound level. She offered her observation that all around her, regardless of who she speaks to, the one thing everyone seems to be doing is to be actively, and almost frantically moving AWAY from isolation, all the while pushing themselves towards finding new ways of maintaining connection with the outside world.
While this is both normal and necessary (no man is an island after all), she suggests that the flip side of this is that we are missing opportunities to spend time with ourselves.
She added that on her travels over the years, she has often been approached by people who profess their envy at her regular ‘retreats’ from the world where she escapes the ‘noisiness of life’ and spends her time in Indian ashrams and the like. However, when faced with the opportunity to embrace this in some small way now, people rush to avoid this experience.
“The hardest person to spend time with is yourself” she said. This had me reflecting on my own personal experience with isolation – I have certainly found myself see-sawing between the subdued excitement of “going inward” and the somewhat unexpected and surprising drive at times to distract myself with less meaningful chatter with others.
As community workers and professional helpers, we all know the incredible power of language – how it has the potential to offer either hope and healing or perpetuate pain and suffering. Once again, in this instance, I have found myself pondering what might be possible if we were to replace the word “isolation” with the word “retreat”.
Of course, this is not in any way meant to minimise the genuine sense of “aloneness” and disconnection that Covid-19 has imposed on us.
But if I think of what the word “retreat” suggests for me, it feels less like something being done to me and much more like an opportunity created by me.
For me being on a “retreat” implies an intentional decision on my part to sit with myself in curiosity and self-compassion, so that I can tap into those parts of myself that I would usually disregard or push away. Being on a retreat also means that I am anticipating and even welcoming some difficult moments with myself – where guilt, sadness, uncertainty, fear and a myriad of other emotions will make themselves known from just below the surface of my ocean of “business”.
What I realise is that by choosing to embrace this existential crisis of ‘being with’ myself in isolation, this also creates a willingness to ‘go there’, because when I do this, I know what I need when I need it.
This includes ideas like when to reach out to others (for their sakes and for my own), and to appreciate the opportunities these ‘moments of retreat’ present for gratitude and openness.
I welcome your thoughts on this idea of ‘retreat’ rather than ‘isolation’ and what, if anything, it makes possible for you, both as individuals and as therapists.
Article written by SKATTLE counsellor Michelle Fairbrother