Why Some of Us Thrive in a Crisis

For the lonely and misanthropic, these times bring surprising solidarity.

Illustration: Najeebah Al-Ghadban; Celestina Vaterra / Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy

I know a woman, very nearly a misanthrope—I’ll call her Stella—who lives alone and is convinced that everyone in the world has a better life than she. Stella’s days are often consumed by the kind of envious depression that only a solitary of her stripe can experience. Years of psychotherapy have persuaded her that she alone can break her isolation, yet she is unable to act on what she knows. But a few weeks ago, as everyone everywhere was being put under house arrest, I called to see how she was doing and, in a voice clear as a bell, she said, “Fine, I’m fine.” Startled, I asked, “How come?” Equally startled, she said, “Because we’re all in this together.”

Ah, I thought, that’s it. Inequality had always been her bête noire. Now that we were facing a threat of illness and death from which no one was exempt, the playing field felt level to her. A privileged life wouldn’t necessarily save a person any more than a desperate one would condemn another. I understood. I have long thought that social inequality is the bane of human existence. To me, equality, more than justice or liberty, is what we crave.

Still, I thought, it was curious that my friend was able to throw off the compulsion of her solitary state so quickly, connecting herself so fast to the crisis at hand. And very soon I saw the phenomenon replicate itself in others like her—loners who sped into public service faster than altruism could explain. These were people who trusted no one, joined nothing, signed nothing; yet here they were making masks, checking on neighbors, bagging groceries. What, exactly, was motivating them now to assume an attitude of solidarity?

In puzzling over this question, I’ve found myself thinking of the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg more than once. Ginzburg came from a dysfunctional family and very young she learned that self-protection required the cultivation of an inner distance from others. Eventually it took a heavy toll. In adolescence, she developed a “stony-faced” (her word) hauteur that made her feel unreal to herself, and soon enough it made everyone around her seem unreal as well. In time she became sealed into an emotional anomie that hardened with the years.

In 1938, at the age of 21, Natalia married Leone Ginzburg, an anti-fascist, and, in 1941, when he was declared persona non grata by the government, accompanied him into what was then called “internal exile”—removal to some rural area far from the urban centers. In 1943, after the fall of Mussolini, the family (by then they had three children) decided it was safe to move back to Rome—a miscalculation for which they would pay dearly. Leone went first, and five months later Natalia and the children followed. Within 20 days of the family’s arrival in the city, Leone was arrested by German police and taken off to prison, where he was tortured and killed.

Ginzburg’s armor—her haughty anomie—had been in place all this time. But now, with war on the ground—the loss of her young husband, death raining from the sky, countless children abandoned in the rubble—life shocked her into an experience she could never have imagined. Suddenly, she felt stifled inside the separateness from others she had valued all these years. No longer a protection, this deep withdrawal of hers now seemed dangerous: a threat to her own survival. Somehow, she realized, she must begin to feel connected, or at least to act as though she felt connected. She must teach herself—now!—to mimic the look and feel of unthinking, everyday comradeship.

Ah, she has it: “We learn,” she writes with something like wonder in her voice, “to ask for help from the first passer-by.” And then, “we learn to give help to the first passer-by.” And then, at last, she finds herself—and that’s exactly it: finds herself—feeling not only saved but curiously alive through the simple act of taking part in the fellowship of suffering.

The experience led Ginzburg to the insight that dominated her work for the rest of her life. In “that brief moment when one day it fell to our lot to live when we had looked at the things of the world for the last time,” she had “found a point of equilibrium for our wavering life.” From then on, she writes, “we could look at our neighbor with a gaze that would always be just and free, not the timid or contemptuous gaze of someone who whenever he is with his neighbor always asks himself if he is his master or his servant.”

I don’t for a minute believe that this seemingly epiphanic moment brought about a permanent change in Ginzburg’s behavior. But when the war was over and the fellowship of suffering had loosened its hold on her, she remained grateful to both, not because they had destroyed her original sense of aloofness but because they had taught her that it had been in place for so much of her life. She now understood that all these years she had been a stranger to herself.

Once, many years ago in Israel, I saw something that reminded me of Ginzburg’s wartime transformation. At that time, I knew a number of women who had been young during the War of Independence. They had lived through every Arab-Israeli conflict since; they were tough. In peacetime I never saw one of them embrace a friend, a relative, or a colleague, much less exhibit an iota of real affection or even share a comradely laugh. In that bullying fear of tenderness, I thought I saw an invisible barrier of emotional withdrawal that separated them from all others.

Then, one day, there was a war alert. When the tanks began to roll, the most remarkable change came over these women. In no time they were all out in the street, pressing packages of food and books and clothes on the soldiers passing by in armored vehicles. What astonished me was the gratitude in their eyes. They were unmistakably grateful for the mayhem to come, grateful that it was allowing them to forget the burden of their own defended selves, grateful to be entering into the only circumstance that could dissolve the inner emptiness: the ever-enlivening fellowship of suffering.

Recently, I saw something on television that brought back the memory of those Israeli women. In a video of the intensive-care unit at a Bronx hospital that had been converted into a coronavirus facility, doctors, nurses, and technicians surrounded a patient who was clearly failing. Most striking, I thought, was the intensity of the collaborative effort being expended on behalf of whoever it was lying there under the lights and the sheets. As dedicated as these people in the ICU obviously were to saving the patient, I could almost see in their eyes, above the masks, the pleasure that each seemed to take in relying on the others to do what they alone could do. And yes, I’ll say it, the gratitude. Here was a shared dependency acting like an elixir, warding off the exhaustion that otherwise would surely have felled many. What was passing among them was the vital experience here.

A person who would certainly have understood the complexity of the human needs on display in that ICU was the great Elizabeth Cady Stanton, America’s most philosophically minded feminist. Stanton spent 50 glorious years in public life, always happy to be living in a mob scene on behalf of suffrage for women. Yet she ended her career with a speech called “Solitude of Self,” in which, after all her years in politics, she said that she had come to realize that all human beings are sealed into an essential aloneness from which there is no escape.

Reading Stanton’s speech, one senses that perhaps the aloneness is innate. However close people are to one another—family, friends, lovers—there is a level of confession to which none descends; it is the level at which the fear of humiliation is paramount. To the greatest degree our solitude is self-created, locked as we are from birth into a psychology of shame.

Precisely because we are such damaged creatures, the chance to fight those external forces that contribute to the forlornness of our natural state is incredibly marvelous. Stanton did not think that suffrage would eliminate the ingrown solitariness—but she did think that our engagement with the Cause, whatever it might be, would let everyone (even those drowning in anomie) grow a self strong enough and independent enough to do battle with life’s irreducible starkness.

Toward the end of the video of that ICU in the Bronx hospital, a woman who had been hovering beyond the edge of the bed, wearing the uniform of a volunteer, left the cubicle with a blood-spattered towel in her hands. As she walked through the glass doors she pulled off her mask and, to my amazement, I saw that she was my friend Stella. She looked as I had never seen her look, in the 30 years I’ve known her: exalted.

This article appears in the June 2020 print edition with the headline “The Fellowship of Suffering.”