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A reflection on existential isolation in the face of COVID-19

The single-digit increase in newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the past one week in Hong Kong is a good sign, despite that we still need to observe for a longer period to see if there is zero local confirmed case reported in the next 28 days to consider if the outbreak is under control. For the time being, social-distancing measures are still on and we still need to be vigilant about the risk. Many of us have experienced social-distancing in this period.  We stay at home to work and study during weekdays and even in weekends. Even though we have lots of online entertainment nowadays, we may still experience loneliness or sense of isolation during social distancing. Did you have a moment reflect about your existence in the face of this pandemic?

Although the death rate of COVID-19 is not very high, it is still a threat to our life as it is a very infectious disease. In the face of the risk of death and the need for isolating ourselves for social distancing, we are inevitably being confronted by the sense of loneliness. In fact, dying is one of the loneliest experiences of human being. No one can die for us; we must experience the process of dying alone. Even for the mild cases of COVID-19, the need for isolation throughout the treatment is inevitably a lonely journey. This kind of isolation stimulates my reflection on what Irvin D. Yalom, a famous author and psychiatrist, described as existential isolation.

According to Yalom, existential isolation is our “unbridgeable gulf between oneself and any other being”. It is also a separation between ourselves and the world. The fact that we are responsible for our lives and need to cultivate maturity to become our own parents implies that we are alone. We need to accept the fact that there is no other being in this world being responsible for our lives when we become an adult. Throughout our lives, we escape from this reality to our everyday lives, our work, our family, our hobbies, or our romantic relationship. The COVID-19 pandemic actually freezes our lives and stimulates us to reflect on our loneliness and nothingness. Let’s imagine if one of our family members is infected and we need to go to quarantine center alone for 14 days.  No one is going to accompany us for this.  We are alone.

This example of going to quarantine center alone introduces another fact that we need to come to terms with our existential isolation, our inevitable loneliness, in order to relate to our significant others healthily. Our intimate relationship will not be a healthy one if we relate to another being in order to fulfill our needs. In this sense, the other human being is a “tool” for us to meet our need for infatuation, lust, admiration or other instrumental gains. According to Erich Fromm, a mature and healthy intimate relationship is to relate to the other human being in a fully accepting stand, and to preserve the other human being’s integrity and individuality. As he said, “the two beings become one and yet remain two”.

To realise our existential isolation is beyond dispute anxiety-provoking. For many people, it is not an easy journey to cultivate this maturity of accepting one’s loneliness and nothingness. Frankly, we are all needy beings yearning for companionship in our life journey in this planet. To strive a balance between seeking others’ company and cultivating acceptance of this ultimate loneliness is our lifelong lesson.

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