I keep running across a particular narrative online, and occasionally in person:
“There are bad things in the world. Isolate yourself to avoid harm!”
“Other people don’t agree with you. Isolate yourself to avoid being tainted by them!”
“Anything unapproved of is a waste of time. Isolate yourself to focus on what matters!”
“You’re too sensitive. Isolate yourself and get out of our way!”
“You lack social skills. Isolate yourself to avoid hurting people!”
“Something is wrong. Isolate yourself!”
Isolation is toxic. It is literally maddening. We are social animals. Granted, not everyone is equally social, but even introverts aren’t better off being totally isolated. Avoiding perspectives other than our own undermines our empathy, which is a necessary component of compassion. Isolation certainly doesn’t help people become less sensitive or more socially skilled, but I would hope that’s obvious. Basically, isolation can transform even the kindest, sanest, most cheerful person into a suicidal depressed, possibly even delusional, misanthropic asshole.
Just about everything humanity has accomplished for good (and, yes, also for ill) since well before recorded history has been a product of collaboration and social interaction. Even the mistakes are part of our growth, individually and socially. Good judgement comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgement, eh? One of the great benefits of being human is having the ability to learn from history, the ability to acquire good judgement from other people’s experience.
There’s a reason abusers isolate their victims. It’s much, much easier to gaslight them, because lack of a reality check makes it much, much harder to question the abuser’s lies. Without other human beings to interact with, we quickly lose touch with what is real and what is our fears or egotistical delusions of grandeur shouting in our heads.
I get it that some people are actually really well suited to monastic practice, but that’s comparatively rare, and even then, most monks are traditionally located with other monks in a monastery if they aren’t out in the world helping people, not isolated from all of humanity. If nothing else, the choice to be totally cloistered loses its meaning if everyone is called to isolate like that. It’s true that temporary isolation can be very cleansing. That’s the whole point of spiritual retreats. It can help clear our heads, help us let go of a lot of stress, by taking a while to be out from under the direct pressures of our everyday lives. But that only works because the isolation isn’t our everyday lives, and again, they’re usually not isolation, so much as a shift in social context. Hence “a change is as good as a rest.”
Some people are forced to be isolated by their circumstances. The goal there is to get them out of that isolation. This is the point of awareness campaigns: end the silence = end the isolation. And yeah, sometimes the isolation is because they’re immunocompromised or have complex allergies, or some other debilitating chronic illness, and they really have no choice. Even then, the struggle is to get them as many resources to avoid isolation as possible. Chronic illness tending to produce isolation is a known factor in chronic illness tending to produce severe depression.
A lot of people in the Pagan movement are still keenly aware that group practice can result in “groupthink“, where people in a group only accept confirmation from within the group. That, too, is a form of isolation, in that the members of the group have allowed themselves to become isolated by the group from any outside reality checks. What people running away from groups are missing is that self-isolation causes the exact same problems, but without even the support system to keep any given individual member afloat.
The key to avoiding being sucked into a vortex of illusion is input from a diversity of perspectives, not isolation. And no, fellow polytheists, multiple gods through the same filter or medium does not count, especially if the filter in question is your own head.
Group practice can teach us how to compromise, and where there are gaps in our own perspectives. It can, if we allow it, teach us how not to be defensive of our own practices, but to accept variations, and even give them a try. Access to other practitioners gives us access to nearly infinite learning opportunities. In my experience, a group practice is the most robust when the people who come together also have their own personal practices which they uphold on their own. The goal is never for us all to be the same, only for us to find an answer that can suit as many of our shared needs as possible within the moments we share.
Granted, even the best of groups can, over time – especially over generations – become corrupt. A certain amount of corruption seems to be necessary to sustain stability where group power is concerned, because the power involved had to be self-reinforcing in order to continue existing, and self-reinforcing power is power redirected from its initial goals. But a solitary practice can calcify every bit as easily as an organized group. Indeed, it can do so far more quickly for lack of other needs and perspectives applying pressure where things need to change and grow. It’s too easy for a solitary to self-isolate on the grounds that what they do is “nobody else’s business”.
To be clear, being a solitary practitioner of your spiritual path is not the same as being totally socially isolated. I do encourage group practice whenever practical because, again, reality checks are a healthy thing for people to have, but I know that when you are the only person who practices something for miles around, you’re pretty well bound to be solitary unless you can find and work well in a virtual group, and some folks just don’t have the bandwidth to get involved with a group even if they’re available locally. That’s fair. I believe in making all open spiritual paths as accessible for solitary practitioners as possible. If you’re solitary by circumstance, or because you need to do something nobody can help you with, that’s a challenge, and by all means, rise up to meet it. But don’t let your need to be solitary become self-isolation. That way lies madness.
And please, please stop telling other people to isolate themselves as though that is the solution to any problem, much less every problem when people don’t all agree. People will never all agree. People will also never learn how to compromise, share, or come to even a tentative agreement if their go-to response to disagreement is to all hide in separate closets until the disagreement goes away.
Granted, all shouting at the top of our lungs until the loudest person thinks they’ve won is also not a functional solution. There are paths other than these two extremes, despite what the internet would have us believe. Really, the solution is to let most disagreements rest. It is not actually necessary for everyone in a community to be always on the same page. It is not necessary for everyone in even a small, intimate group, to share the same views on everything. As long as their fundamental interpersonal values are compatible enough that they know how not to treat each other like shit, the rest can be worked through, and should be.
Just as we must be willing to leave people out of social engagements where their habitual behavior is disruptive and harmful, we must also be willing to take the time to teach people so that their behavior isn’t disruptive and harmful. Keyword in both cases here: Behaviors. Not identity. Not beliefs. Behaviors.
And yeah, sometimes we don’t have the spoons for it. I get that. Some individuals never have the spoons for it. I get that. Those are the exceptions. They can’t be the rule. Making them the rule hurts everyone.