The ‘command and control’ world of isolation we all find ourselves requires some new lessons in coping with isolation. Father Michael Kelly reflects on his experience of the strict world of the Jesuit Novitiate to guide him through his isolation.
We are all on a sharp learning curve. The virus has reshaped what we had taken for granted in terms of our living. And the best-informed predictions of an end to our constraints and containment are that we won’t see any change till a vaccine comes to our aid. But that won’t be for 12 months by most estimates
The fact is old dogs are now going to have to learn new tricks to manage ourselves, our mood swings, our productivity, our relationships and our general sense of coherence.
References to parallel experience for the human race reach back 100 years when the so-called Spanish Flu because the contagious infection started just before the end of hostilities in World War I. So the world scored two knock out blows at the same time – the “war to end all wars” and the deadly outbreak of influenza.
The Spanish flu was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic. Lasting from January 1918 to December 1920, it infected 500 million people – about a quarter of the world’s population at the time.
But for me, the experience now brings back memories of almost fifty years ago in my life. In 1971, I was a reckless, willful and driven adolescent who had made up his mind what he was going to do with the rest of his life: become a Jesuit.
In my adolescence and in common with young men attending the Jesuit school I did, we did things like that and believed that our decisions about what came next after high school were determinative for the rest of our lives.
And the school I attended was the full flower of aggressively muscular tribal Catholicism. in my final year at school, 10% of the graduates chose some form of clerical or religious life for their futures.
But when I got to the Jesuit Novitiate, I discovered more than I was prepared for. And I hated the place – full of rules and regulations about everything, full of people giving orders and many of my co-novices who were only too pleased to comply with directions from authorities.
Not my scene I thought and so I had to make a decision: remain or depart. I knew there was much more ahead that had attracted me to the Jesuits in the first place. I had seen them at work leading lives that were beneficial (to others) and enriching (to themselves). So, I decided I would see this unhappy experience through to get to where I wanted to be. The Holy Spirit had some say too as I will explain after describing the coping mechanisms I developed.
The most helpful things I learnt – and I must say I am resorting to this way of coping through the spread of the virus – came to me through a book that had only been recently published at that time: Total Institutions by the Canadian author Erving Goffman.
As one of Goffman’s commentators puts it: A total institution is a closed social system in which life is organized by strict norms, rules, and schedules, and what happens within it is determined by a single authority whose will is carried out by staff who enforce the rules.
Goffman examines institutions from jails and concentration camps to psychiatric hospitals and monasteries to establish the key features of total institutions which come down to being seen as places defined by a command and control management structure rigorously enforced.
Bingo! My novitiate experience exactly.
The effect of such places is that your life is in someone else’s hands, that your decisions are made for you about your life by others, that you live in a world of isolation from the normal and natural flow of human interaction.
Such places may be bearable for introverts who create their own lives, projects and activities for themselves and usually all with themselves. It’s bad if you are like me – an extrovert who gets life from engagement and interaction and likes life to be open-ended to receive what comes my way and respond to it.
And what does this “command and control” world sound like? It’s precisely where we are globally. We are in lockdown, with our activities and interactions restricted by all-commanding authorities (governments and police) and our mobility constrained by regulations we have to follow or be punished if we disobey them.
The terrain of a total institution has extended to encompass our whole lives – work, education, recreation, exercise and most importantly interaction with others.
Unlike my decisions in the Novitiate, the situation the world is in now is not one we have chosen to embrace. It is one thrust upon us, and one over which we have little or no control. In it, we are being challenged to use our life experiences and faith to see the hand of God in this new situation.
I plan to follow the pattern I learnt under such constraints 50 years ago:
- Stop reacting by rebelling;
- Place some order in my life with tasks that are planned and executed even if in a solitary condition;
- Spend more time in contemplation to find the depth of my heart and desire to stay as alive in my depths as I can, and above all
- Keep hope alive by saying to myself that “this too shall pass” and the good things I long to renew action on will eventually happen again if not for a couple of years…just as I had to keep saying to myself in the Novitiate.
I wasn’t there the day the virtues were handed out and so I never got my allocation of patience. I will have to learn that day by day.
Father Michael Kelly is a Jesuit Priest.