Without consciously realizing it, I downloaded an audiobook from the library about a hermit. I remember hearing about The Stranger in the Woods when it came out a few years back - about a man discovered living in the woods in Maine. He went something like 24 years without human contact, save for a single chance encounter with a hiker in which he uttered simply the word 'hi'. When he was caught stealing provisions from a summer camp, he was clean-shaven and slick. In terms of survivalist skills, the guy could give Bear Grylls a run for his money. The most remarkable part of this story was the fact that the hermit - Chris Knight - sounded more sane than you and me both (sorry, that's presumptuous - you are no doubt incredibly sane!). Straight out of high school, Knight went on a road trip and just... never came back. He checked out of society at a time when all avenues were open to him. Imagine, a smart white American man... The prospects! He didn't opt out for spiritual reasons; nor was he a "prepper", despite his palpable contempt for what he saw around him: our insatiable consumption, disconnect from nature, and our headlong race toward self-destruction.
Compared to Thoreau, whom he regarded as a dilettante, Knight was hardcore. After all, Thoreau only sentenced himself to seclusion for a couple of years and even then, reportedly held the odd dinner party here and there. There are limits to how self-sufficient you can be to survive an upstate winter, mind you. So Knight resorted to petty thieving to maintain his lifestyle, something of a necessary evil. Right now, we have all been forced into relative isolation. Being alone for long stretches of time is something most of us tend to avoid like the plague. Consider how long you have gone without contact with another person - not counting phone/text/Facetime? Most of us rarely go a single day, let alone a week, month or year... There's a reason solitary confinement is considered the worst possible punishment you can inflict on another human. We are social creatures by design, but Knight is an anomaly. The fact that he chose to be in the woods away from people for decades is hard to fathom. As an only child, I grew accustomed to my own company. Much as I still seek out time alone to recharge or engage in a solitary hobby, there comes a point when even I get twitchy and crave connection.
The pandemic reminded me that humans are a little too adaptable for our own good, though. It's amazing what we can adjust to when we have no choice. As the weeks of lockdown wore on, isolation became the new normal and I felt myself ease into a mild form of hermitage. Not seeing anyone outside of my bubble, I became wary of anyone who inadvertently got in my personal space. Conversations feel a bit more strained and effortful. By now, kids are used to Zoom School; a lot of parents may never go back to a bricks-and-mortar office. Sure, we miss giving and getting hugs, but with enough time and practice, we can get used to pretty much anything. This adaptability, as this article points out, comes as a blessing and a curse. Masks themselves are literal barriers to connection; especially when meeting someone for the first time. The eyes can only convey so much. I miss being able to see people smile most of all.
I drove downtown one day after my city had reopened. I was looking for parking when I suddenly became overwhelmed at the sight of cars and pedestrians. It's wasn't exactly bustling. Still, panic grabbed me by the throat, and I had to pull over for a second. Crazy. I took a deep breath and told myself to get a grip. At what point had being out in public become strange and uncomfortable? I knew I wasn't the only one feeling it. In time, we will readjust as quickly as we did to the unnatural state of lockdown, just as the hermit adjusted to his solitary life in the woods. At first, it will be hard. We will have to stretch and flex those atrophied social muscles. Maybe we will never feel quite the same ease around others as we once did? Whatever the reason, Chris Knight never felt comfortable around people, yet once caught, the justice system had the sense to show him some mercy. He wasn't imprisoned but was forced to "reenter" the society he had fled, which was sentence enough. He became suicidal, then, it seems, resigned to his fate and the conditions of his bail (by conservative estimates, he had conducted over a thousand burglaries during his seclusion, usually just for things like batteries and canned foods, and he always felt contrite).
It saddens me to think that Chris Knight never experienced human connection deep and meaningful enough to miss it. I certainly have, so I hope to never again take it for granted.
In what ways have you savoured or struggled with the isolation of lockdown? Have you had any trouble "peopling" as some restrictions lift?