Q. I’m a single person in my late 20s in a big U.S. city. I’m fortunate enough to have several college friends in the same city who are all in long-term relationships with each other. These friends have started podding together due to the coronavirus, one couple even going as far as moving into the same building as another couple. I’ve always struggled with feeling like a third/fifth/seventh wheel, but it seems like I’m on the outside looking in more than ever. I wouldn’t feel comfortable asking to be included based on my job, which puts me at a higher exposure risk, but the twinge of envy is hard to shake. What do you do when your friends exclude you even when the reasons make total sense? — Pod for One
May I suggest that, after five months of being effectively marooned in what is likely, given your cohort’s age and urban setting, a tiny, claustrophobic apartment, your friends in couples are merging with other couples simply because they can’t bear another moment alone with each other? A friend told me that her parents, having weathered 49 years of marriage, recently stopped talking, not out of some loss of love but from sheer exhaustion. Now they just raise a silent toast across the room at cocktail hour. (Still here!) “Hell is other people,” in the words of the 20th-century French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre — meaning not that human relations are intrinsically false and doomed and we should retreat into solipsism, but that under the gaze of others we are subject to an unceasing judgment that starts to shape and constrict how we see ourselves. From this vantage, solitude looks good.
You might argue that solitude is just another word for loneliness. But as the Taiwanese film director Tsai Ming-liang has said, “When a person is lonely, the person becomes real, real to be oneself.” His 1992 debut feature, “Rebels of the Neon God,” blurs melancholic poetry and dark farce, finding a strange exuberance in the wanderings of two disaffected young men through a breathlessly crowded city awash in fluorescence and rain. Hsiao-kang, the son of a taxi driver, swats cockroaches instead of doing his math homework; Ah-tze, a small-time thief, pilfers coins out of phone booths. Their arcs converge in a moment that means nothing to one and everything to the other: As Hsiao-kang sits sullenly in the passenger seat of his father’s taxi, he catches sight of Ah-tze through the window, roaring past on a motorbike with a girl clutching his back. When Ah-tze impulsively smashes the taxi’s rear-view mirror, for no reason beyond destructive glee, Hsiao-kang becomes obsessed. There’s an erotic charge to it, a desire for the clinging girl but even more so for the boy who has her. Hsiao-kang shadows the thief, seeking purpose through revenge, but also in thrall to a vision of a life more lived, never realizing that Ah-tze is himself essentially alone. Still they are connected, by the filmmaker holding them in the frame, and by us, voyeurs like Hsiao-kang, hungry for news of other lives, to better understand our own.
When confronted with forces beyond our control, isolation can be a form of escape and self-preservation. In 2013, the Palestinian artist Nidaa Badwan, who lives in Gaza, was reprimanded by Hamas officers for wearing what they deemed indecent clothing: denim overalls. Rather than capitulate to dogmatism, she decided to withdraw from society. For more than a year, she rarely emerged from her 100-square-foot bedroom, which she transformed into a color-ravished hermitage, one wall slaked in teal and another padded with bright squares of painted egg cartons, to dampen street noise and keep the outside from leaking in. In “100 Days of Solitude” (the title a nod to the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez’s 1967 novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”), a series of carefully composed, painterly photographs — of Badwan perched at a typewriter, weeping beside a platter of onions, holding a thread to the eye of a needle, or simply sprawled in bed in the same overalls that got her in trouble — invokes a narrative of boundlessness at odds with the restrictions of the space. The room seems to grow. Like Gaza, unseen and offstage, under blockade (Badwan has had difficulty obtaining permits to attend exhibitions of her work abroad), this relentless interior is a kind of prison, but one that Badwan has chosen and made, and so she appears free.
In ordinary times, when we are besieged by the insistent look at me, look at me of friends, foes and strangers alike, at home and at work, on the street and on social media, the idea of seclusion is a fantasy: to shut out that noise and have a moment to know yourself again. This is part of the promise of the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, designed by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor to honor a 15th-century mystic and completed in Mechernich, Germany, in 2007. From the outside, it has the austerity of a monolith, a concrete tower reachable only by a long dirt footpath through fields of wheat, with a steel triangle for a door, like some abstracted steeple. Inside is a husk, a memory of a teepee-like framework of spruce trees that was burned like an offering, slowly, over three weeks, until the interior blackened, as if the trees’ shadows had been imprinted on the concrete. The floor is poured lead; a lone bench awaits. You are enclosed in darkness, as in a cave, but there is a reprieve — light leaking in through little orbs of glass that bead the walls, and a hole to the sky that lets in rain and, in winter, snow. You must look up, or within. But this intensely private space is not the expression of a single will. That it exists at all is testament to the collective effort of the farmers who till the surrounding fields, who reached out to Zumthor because they wanted a place to pray and remember their patron saint. Zumthor, in turn, called on them to come together as neighbors and build his design themselves, as in a latter-day barn raising. So the chapel both invites solitude and affirms, by its very presence, the need for community. Even inside that charred interior, you are not cut off: The world enters through that oculus, reminding you it’s there.
Only the most enlightened or hardened among us can survive prolonged periods without companionship. Remember that quarantine is not forever (although it feels like it), and that people don’t need to be in the same room to keep a bond alive or forge a new one. This might be a time to resurrect old friendships, too, those that might have faded with geographical separation, a fact now irrelevant in a time when everyone is distanced. Badwan, holed up in her sanctuary in Gaza, found an international audience and like-minded spirits by posting her pictures on social media; she was alone yet not alone. We will get through this. Consider the 1961 image “Summer, New York City” by the American photographer Louis Draper, who chronicled life in Harlem starting in the 1950s: A boy stands in the cascade of an uncapped hydrant, drenched and arms outstretched, while one friend hovers over the hydrant, steering the high-arching spay, and others watch from the sidewalk, as if not yet ready to jump in. The perspective makes it look like the other kids are far away, almost on another shore. For a moment, the boy holds the stage alone, the water — and the joy — all his.