Solitude in the Pandemic

At this time, as in any time, if you know how to be alone, you are that much stronger. The right amount of time alone will depend on the person or circumstances, but if you can make something of it, so much the better.

The understanding of solitude is different here in Hungary from in the U.S. The approximate translation of “solitary,” “magányos,” generally has a sorrowful connotation; yet “magány” and “magányosság,” the corresponding nouns, have ambivalent and negative connotations, respectively. People often frown upon those who live alone and do things alone. Or, if they don’t frown on them, they have a hard time understanding how such people could be happy.

On the other hand, many Hungarians have a kind of inherent solitude, an ability to focus and think. The people I know are not the whole country, but they tend to think before speaking, to spend time puzzling through things, and to take on challenges that require various levels and forms of solitude. There’s a basic thoughtfulness that inheres in aspects of the culture. (On the other hand, what people think or mutter to themselves may be filled with sarcastic quips, swear words, etc. Solitude isn’t necessarily peaceful.)

In the U.S., there’s much more emphasis on quick reactions, speaking your mind right away, and being part of a team; in that sense, as I discuss in Republic of Noise, solitude is pushed aside. On the other hand, it’s considered normal to live alone, go places alone, etc., at least among the people I know.

So, solitude is both accepted and not accepted in both countries. This makes sense; by its nature, solitude cannot be fully understood by others. It will inevitably be rejected or misconstrued in some way. At the same time, every life contains some element of it. Solitude is difficult to pinpoint; there’s more to it than spending time alone, living alone, or being otherwise visibly alone.

Back to the pandemic: when you have to stay at home, or when events that bring people together are prohibited, this can turn into an opening for writing stories, working on art, tinkering with computer programs, doing home repair, reading, or introspection. Zoom events–while interesting in good measure–do not have to fill up the time. Nor does everyone have an abundance of time to be filled. Online teaching, I find, takes more time than teaching in person, so the little time I have outside of that gets taken quickly. I enjoy having some time to myself, and it does not feel like too much. The one thing I miss is the range of choices, the option of being among others, going to concerts and plays, traveling abroad. But I believe that these will come back before too long.

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4 Comments

  1. James OKeeffe

     /  November 12, 2020

    Heartening words. I’ve always enjoyed your writing and your insights on education. Glad to see you’re weathering the pandemic well!

    Reply
  2. Joyce Mandell

     /  November 12, 2020

    Diana: I love how you find time in your alone time. I love how you are not afraid of alone and actually relish the time. I love how you really are your own best friend. Great role modeling, my friend

    Reply

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  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

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