Why Art Can Help Us Heal from Our Pandemic Loneliness

May 6, 2021

InSpero believes all kinds of art and those who make art help us feel less alone in this world. Navigating the pandemic has been difficult for many reasons, but we have so much hope and gratitude for all that lies ahead. Our friend Charlotte Donlon wrote the essay below about how art will help us heal from our pandemic loneliness. May it be an encouragement while we watch post-pandemic life unfold. We looking forward to connecting with you in person in the coming months and beyond.

Most people struggle with different forms of loneliness under typical circumstances. When Covid-19 caused quarantines and closings and strange new ways of life, many people experienced even greater degrees of isolation. Before the pandemic, I knew art helped me feel less alone. During the pandemic, various forms of art were balms to my lonely soul in ways I had never noticed. And as I move out of pandemic time into whatever we'll call what happens next, I know art will help me feel more connected to myself, others, and the world.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read C.M. Morgan’s All the Living, but whenever I read a page or two or three, I feel less alone. Over the past year, I’ve returned again and again to the push and pull of Aloma and Orren’s relationship, the old rambling farmhouse they share, the tobacco fields anchored by mountains. The novel’s familiar characters, place, and stories have soothed my sense of isolation.

Literature makes me feel less lonely. As does music, film, TV shows, paintings, and photographs. All art--high art, low art, and everything in between--can be a balm to our loneliness and help us belong to ourselves, others, and the world. 

Research done by Community Foundations of Canada found “the broad reach and deep emotional connections made through the arts prove they are powerful instruments to enhance belonging.” When we engage art, two things happen. What we see or hear or receive awakens what’s inside us. And what’s inside finds its expression in the external works created by others. What we’ve been unable to notice or figure out on our own can be clarified and illuminated by something and someone outside of us. This biway between us and art creates new connections. We become more aware of who we are. We realize we aren’t the only ones who feel this way. We remember we are part of something larger than ourselves.

As we move forward toward more typical rhythms of life and out of pandemic time, one way we can heal is to be more intentional about putting ourselves in the way of art. We don't just "support the arts" because we value artists and their work. We also support the arts because the arts support us. 

Jeremy Nobel, Harvard Medical School faculty member and founder of the UnLonely Project, says "the arts are scientifically proven to be powerful forces in aiding in belonging and connection." Going to a museum, listening to music, watching a film, bingeing on a Netflix show, and reading a novel give us opportunities to focus our attention, allow thoughts and feelings to rise within us, and provide fresh ways to navigate difficulty. Artistic works and venues also give us insight into complex ideas and helps our curiosity and imaginations deepen. 

When we feel alone or isolated or like no one else in the entire world can understand what we are experiencing, art tells us otherwise. It offers us different narratives and fresh ways of seeing, hearing, and paying attention. It opens us up to new possibilities.

Loneliness is often accompanied by stress and anxiety. Many who live by themselves have had to navigate quarantines and social distancing guidelines without having others inside their bubble. Some people haven’t had a hug in more than a year. They haven’t even received the comforting touch from a hairstylist or shaken the hands of new acquaintances. The heightened awareness of their aloneness has increased their feelings of disconnection. 

Those who aren’t struggling with situational and circumstantial loneliness, those who aren’t literally alone, may also be experiencing more worry. They may think something is wrong with them. Maybe they have been thinking about their unexplained loneliness since before Covid-19 arrived because when a new pandemic appears, it doesn’t replace an existing pandemic. Those who know loneliness even though they have wonderful relationships with their family and friends and neighbors may be confused. They wonder, “Why do I still feel isolated even though the vaccine is being distributed and I’m having more meaningful interactions with others?”  

Research has shown that art can also help our anxiety and decrease our worry. “Art literally rewires our brains and can reduce stress. It allows us to feel better about ourselves and about our behaviors,” Nobel says.

Art gives us opportunities to notice what’s happening within us and in the world around us. It helps us express our love, anger, joy, sorrow, hope, and grief. Art broadens our imaginations and gives us opportunities to contemplate what might be possible. And it provides moments of rest in this world that’s full of so much damage and strife. 

One benefit of the pandemic has been broader access to the arts via online venues. Yesterday morning I watched the New York City Ballet’s new piece When We Fell, a filmed performance co-directed by choreographer Kyle Abraham and cinematographer Ryan Marie Helfant. Seeing dancers move through the gray space--literal and figurative--made me feel more comfortable in my own current gray space. Their graceful and curious movements invited me to explore my own physicality. What space am I occupying right now? How do I feel connected to myself and my body right now?

Before the pandemic, I would have never been able to see a new NYCB production without traveling to New York City from my home in Birmingham, Alabama. Even those who live nearby and hold season tickets now have access to a different perspective. The cinematography provides new ways of seeing, and the accompanying documentary film gives us a sense of what the dancers and choreographer experienced leading up to the performance.

At the beginning of the documentary, Abraham spoke about how he was sensitive to his surroundings as he began to work on When We Fell. He describes how he wanted to let their specific location, the time of year, the weather inform his new piece. He says, “I think a lot of that winds up playing a part in the aesthetic choices that we’re making in this space.” He also spoke a bit about the ways dance reveals and gives expression to what’s inside us, reminding me of the ideas above about how art creates connections between people and helps them deepen their belongings.

The dancers who performed When We Fell shared how hard it is to do ballet alone, how difficult the pandemic was for them, and how they were confused about their futures. And viewers of the documentary get to follow the story of these dancers moving out of isolation and into belonging through dance, through performance, through coming together to create a new work of art.

Those of us who view this documentary and the performance become connected to their stories because we know what it’s like to want to move away from isolation. We know what it’s like to want to belong.

I’m thankful for the ways art has been a companion through the pandemic, and I look forward to engaging more art offline in the coming months. I want to go to museums and concerts and poetry readings. I want to be closer to the art that soothes loneliness, anxiety, and worry. I want to experience the power of art in the presence of other people. I want to heal.  

*Image from a 2019 InSpero concert with David Wilcox and Andy Gullahorn at Leaf & Petal.

Charlotte Donlon is a writer who reads, a reader who writes, and a certified spiritual director for writers. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University where she studied creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Curator, The Christian Century, Christianity Today, Catapult, The Millions, Mockingbird, and elsewhere. Her first book is The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other. You can learn more about spiritual direction for writers at Writing Life Spiritual Direction, subscribe to her newsletter here, and connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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