May 28, 2012

Solitary Social Creatures

We've all had the feeling of being alone, abandoned, and feeling down and out. 

As social animals, we crave being with others--even the biggest introverts out there have got to have social interaction. 

Sometimes, when young people live alone--before finding their significant others or old people live alone--after losing their significant others, there is a deep pain of being isolated in the world...almost as if there is no meaning itself in being alive.

Yet, others seem to adjust in a way to living alone, as long as they can reach out and get social interaction in other ways--family, friends, colleagues, classmates, at clubs, religious institutions, and more.  

Either way--"No man is an island," as John Donne wrote in 2003. 

Being alone is torture. 

No really.

The Wilson Quarterly (Spring 2012) in an article entitled "The Torture of Solitary," by Stephanie E. Griest is about the purpose and effects of solitary confinement as rehabilitation and as a punishment. 

Coming out of the Middle Ages, where physical torture was common--dungeons instead of jails, cages instead of cells, racks and rippers instead of rehabilitation and yard recess--the Philadelphia Quakers in the 18th century, had the idea that solitary confinement was humanitarian.

They believed that "what these prisoners needs...was a spiritual renovation. Give a man ample time and quiet space to reflect upon his misdeeds, and he will recover his bond with G-d.  He will grieve. He will repent. He will walk away a rehabilitated man."

And so prisons (like the 1829 Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia) were built with entirely isolated cellblocks and prisoners were engulfed in silence and aloneness.  

Any rejection of the mental torture of isolation through any form of communication--such as pipe clanging or shouting through flushing toilet pipes--could lead to yet again physical tortures--such as "strapped inmates into chairs for days at a stretch, until their legs ballooned" or even putting their tongues in "iron gags."

The article concludes from the effects of solitary that "the physical pain of these tortures--common in many prisons at the time-paled beside the mental anguish of solitude."

From the horror-mangled looks on the faces of the prisoners, Dickens wrote: "I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body."

I cannot imagine the pain and horror of these tortures by design--physical and mental. In all cases, the scars of the flesh and soul are probably indescribable and outright haunting to even the imagination. 

Eventually the horrible effects of solitary and the high-cost of prison cells housing individual inmates, resulted in Eastern State Penitentiary being converted into a museum in 1971 with the "The crucible of good intention" finally shuttered.

From the Supreme Court, Justice Samuel Miller, we read:

"A considerable number of prisoners fell, even after a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community."

"In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court nearly declared the punishment unconstitutional;" it is now used mostly for "short-term punishment for exceedingly bad behavior."

Currently, there are more than 60 prisons across the country with solitary cells housing up to 25,000 prisoners. 

This is a puzzle--what do you do with offenders that are too dangerous to be with others, but as human beings too fragile to be alone?

What is striking to me is how something as "simple" as putting someone by themselves and incommunicado can drive them literally nuts!

Almost like we cannot bear to be by ourselves--what is it about ourselves that we must turn away from, be distracted from, and causes such inner horror?

Our minds and bodies need to be active to be healthy, this includes being social--being alone and bored in solitary has been shown to cause people to hallucinate, go insane, and even kill themselves.

Yet still people recoil from other people--emotionally, they may be turned off or nauseated by them; physically, they may fight, separate, or divorce and end up for a time by themselves again--people make the decision that it is better to cut your familiar loses, then go down with a ship filled with corrosive and abusive others.

I imagine Buddhists meditating in the mountains or in an open field--alone and yet at peace--but this is self-imposed and temporary and more like a "time out" in life. 

Then I see humans languishing in dungeons and in solitary confinement--physically and mentally tortured--they scream out in the void--and I see G-d reaching out to finally take them from their immense suffering to be reborn and try their lives again.

(Source Photo: here with attribution to Deisel Demon)


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