We’re Finding Out How Small Our Lives Really Are

No new friends. No new plans. Where is there to go in isolation but backwards and inward?

People in windows viewed through balconies
Sitting in isolation watching someone else’s isolation, it’s hard not to overanalyze. (Victor ​Moriyama / The New York Times)

This week, Patti LuPone had been set to star in a new production of Company on Broadway. But rather than backslapping with the rest of the cast and belting about the ladies who lunch to an audience of thousands every night, she’s dancing around in her home basement. In a Twitter video the 70-year-old stage legend posted last weekend, she gives a tour of her spacious underground rec room, which is cluttered with knickknacks and amusements—a jukebox, a slot machine, a pinball game. Wearing an oversize sweatshirt, her hair in a nicely highlighted bob, LuPone narrates with an air of mania, pep, and boredom. She twirls, she points to a desk she bought with David Mamet, and she moves on.

Sitting in isolation watching someone else’s isolation, it’s hard not to overanalyze. Before the pandemic, LuPone had a thriving career in a profession—live theater—that’s hugely demanding and ever-changing. When most days involve prepping to be onstage for three hours, does she have a minute for at-home pinball? How frequently does she stop and dwell on her posters, pictures, and tchotchkes harkening back to her 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s? At one point in the video she says the piano down in the basement is broken. Perhaps it is only now, thanks to social distancing, that Patti LuPone is coming to really know her underground playpen, stuffed with diverting reminders of the lives she’d lived.

Maybe you can tell where I’m going with this. Many people are living in their own versions of Patti LuPone’s basement right now, though most versions are definitely not as delightful. The necessary response to the pandemic has, after all, intensified huge swaths of the population’s pre-pandemic situations. The economically and medically fragile are at new risk; the cloistered and privileged have only thickened the walls of their bubble. Single people feel extremely single. People in relationships are now super-duper in relationships. The home has become not a refuge from the world’s arena but rather the arena itself. It’s thus tempting to think of the crisis as a personal reckoning: This is the life you’ve been making all along. Now live it.

What it really is, however, is a rescaling of life on terms contrary to deeply ingrained directives, primal and cultural. Last fall, I moved from Boston to New York City, a transition that involved paying more rent for a third of the space of my previous apartment. The calculation was that I’d trade a relatively set and sleepy life, involving a small number of excellent friends and a finite-feeling menu of entertainment options, for a more bustling existence—more stuff to do, more people to see, less reason to play video games at home. It worked. My social circles were growing; my nights were busy; the couch became more foreign. Then the coronavirus came. I’ve cleaned up my laptop and found horrible unpublished essays from 2008. I’ve started playing tele-Scrabble with people I’d not spoken with since the Obama era. I’ve learned a lot about the paint on my ceiling. I’ve started to forget that I live in the biggest city in America.

There are of course a huge number of people who don’t have the luxury of boredom right now. There are people who thrive on staying put. But for others, what’s trippy about isolation is not simply the loss of face-to-face contact and communal spaces. It’s the way it closes off a crucial psychic space and crowds us back onto terrain that may have been ignored, or only lightly tended to. I have realized that I’ve always thought of my life as a project under construction—something constantly becoming something else, through the playful work of meeting people and going places and scheming projects. But there are no new friends in a pandemic. No exciting plans to be made. There’s almost nowhere to go, psychologically, but backwards and inward.

That’s an uncomfortable thing in part because of how dramatically it inverts can-do cultural directives. Maybe there’s an upside in that, and in any case it is a mild price to pay in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. To the extent that there already was a documented loneliness epidemic, it surely had something to do with the way in which modern life encourages people to treat their personal pasts as museum pieces. You display what you’ve done and who you know—whether with framed photos in the basement or digital ones on Instagram—even if the people in those displays easily fall out of touch. The present, and its promise of a new future, distracts. So does the workplace—which America treats as simply an extension of personal life—that so many people are locked out of right now.

Advice columns and inspirational tweets of the moment will tell you that now is the time to do various re-verbs—restock, reevaluate, replenish, reconnect. Videochats are a clunky medium—who talks first? can you ever stop looking at your own picture in the corner?—but they are all the rage for good reason. Obviously they help people maintain close current friendships; they can also defrost long-iced ones. Online games and emails and texts and letter-writing can do this too. When isolation ends, some people may emerge with a strengthened connection with forgotten high-school buddies. They may have picked up new hobbies, or—as I suspect will be more common—resurrected old ones. They may healthfully acquaint themselves with such non-American virtues as stillness, being present, and surrendering the ego.

But there’s no reason to put too sunny a spin on what’s happening. Research has shown that anticipation can be a linchpin of well-being and that looking ahead produces more intense emotions than retrospection. In a 2012 New York Times article on why people thirst for new experiences, one psychologist told the paper, “Novelty-seeking is one of the traits that keeps you healthy and happy and fosters personality growth as you age,” and another referred to human beings as a “neophilic species.” Of course, the current blankness in the place of what comes next is supposed to be temporary. Even so, lacking an ability to confidently say “see you later” is going to have its effects. Have you noticed the way in which conversations in this era can quickly become recursive? You talk about the virus. Or you talk about what you did together long ago. The interactions don’t always spark and generate as easily as they once did.

I’ve written that celebrities, who are relentlessly live-streaming and chitter-chattering online, feel especially frivolous during this crisis. The truth is that they are on the leading edge of our existential catastrophe, as they are the ones who have most internalized and capitalized on cultural directives to create, to connect, and—more than anything—to climb. With their ambitions curtailed, with their stages darkened, they will experience a rarefied version of the dislocation that is being experienced more broadly. Maybe you saw the lurid and upsetting video Madonna posted (and deleted) of herself monologuing about COVID-19 from a rose-petal-strewn milk bath. She marvels at the disease being the “great equalizer,” which isn’t really true. What is true is that there’s something symbolically potent about the nasty-looking water she’s sitting in—murky, puddled, and tepid.