The other day I was having dinner with a priest friend, and the two of us were commenting that our memories aren’t what they used to be. One of the things we have in common is that we’re both past 60 years old. Thinking about it for a minute we realized that we oldsters aren’t the only people having memory troubles. Could it be the Covids? We thought so. So, what’s so hopeful about that?
It’s not the damage the virus did to our bodies. It’s not even the damage the virus did to our minds. At least not directly. Why are so many people’s memories not so good? Why is our thinking a little bit off? Why are we so nervous and touchy? It is related to the isolation the pandemic imposed on us all.
My priest friend and I have both been working with incarcerated people for a long time. He’s done a lot more of this work than I have, and we both know about the harmful effects of being in jail. Let me unpack that a bit. You might have heard of “solitary confinement.” That’s the practice of isolating a prisoner with no contact with other people at all. It’s used in maximum security prisons sometimes, and it’s really bad for people. Almost immediately, the person in the cell begins to feel anxiety and nervousness. Then come paranoid and suicidal thoughts… then the hallucinations begin. This kind of punishment is recognized internationally as a form of torture. One of the surprising things about this is that the damage from solitary confinement can become permanent even after a short time. Wow. Why is this treatment so bad for people?
This has to do with our nature as human beings. We’re made for interaction with other people. We need interaction with other people. Without it, bad things happen to us. The monks in monastic life recognized this centuries ago. Did you know that the hermits associated with a religious community have to return to the monastery at least once a week for a meal with the other monks? Yes, isolation is really bad for us. It affects everything about the way our minds function.
And, how many of us had to live in some form of isolation during the pandemic? Think of all the kids who didn’t go to school. Think of all the public events that were cancelled. Think of the tone of the communications that were directed our way. As it is, being isolated makes you a bit paranoid. Imagine a person who on a good day might not want to go out of the house pre-pandemic. Where is that person now?
In the conversation with my priest friend he reminded me that one of the most difficult things for people who’ve been released from prison is the “randomness” of life. After all, if you’re in prison, there’s a set time every day for breakfast, then maybe some reading, then maybe lunch, then a nap, then some exercise, then dinner, then lights out. Once you’re out of prison… oh my goodness, there’s so much coming at you from all directions. It can be overwhelming.
Our memories have been affected. Our thinking is a little bit off these days. Our resilience is down… we’re all a little touchy and fragile feeling. That’s how we’re doing. And it’s worse for the introverts! So, where’s the good news in all this? The good news is that we can heal. It will take a while. Maybe a year or two. But there’s hope for the future.
In the mean time, it’s probably a good idea to take a couple of steps toward better mental health. Maybe it means making yourself go to an event where there are strangers around. Strangers? Holy Cow. Maybe it means turning off the news! What? Not being constantly bombarded with shocking images? Maybe it means cutting yourself a little slack, and cutting the people around you a little slack.
We can heal! Great news! And it won’t really take all that long for the healing to begin. What did somebody once say? The best thing about not hitting your head with a hammer anymore is how much better you feel right away!