Just last year, my Secondary 2 English class asked me one morning what my favourite quote was. Without skipping a beat, I replied that it would have to be an observation by the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal: All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
I recall their expressions of bemusement and bewilderment when following up on the quotation with an explanation of a 2014 study published in the journal Science: it showed that people who were made to spend 6 to 15 minutes in a room on their own with nothing to do typically disliked the experience so much that many would rather administer mild electric shocks to themselves instead of being alone with their own thoughts. In other words, most people prefer doing something rather than nothing even if those activities are unpleasant.
Continuing my spiel in praise of solitude, I pondered aloud whether the myriad problems of the world could have been avoided – from wars to accidents of all kinds – if more of humanity just had the common sense to stay quietly in their rooms (or at least the part of humanity that could afford rooms to stay in). One of my students raised her hand to respond: “But ’cher, don’t we need to go to school? And in future, to go out and work?” I paused for a moment before bouncing another question to other members of the class: “What do the rest of you think?”
One boy said that maybe technology in the future would be so advanced that students could “download” software straight into their brains so they would not have to attend school. Another chimed in that maybe work itself would no longer be needed because robots would be able to do all the work for us so everyone could just “game at home”. One girl asked anxiously whether staying in our rooms would mean people would not talk to one another anymore. By the end of the class, we had a rich discussion about the value of work, the implications of technology, as well as the costs and benefits of being alone in the modern world.
I would wager that even Pascal could have scarcely imagined how prescient his comments would be in today’s era of social distancing. His is a timely reminder of our abiding dread of isolation, our urge to escape the challenges of solitude through the futile pursuit of frivolous distractions. Today, as was not the case for Pascal, a whole host of distractions vie for our attention just within the walls of our own rooms; the simple provision of an Internet-enabled device in the room would suffice to consume us. In an age in which social media platforms and online sources have dominated our collective consciousness, we find ourselves hankering after a connection with everything – everything, that is, but ourselves.
Isolation is Not Impotence
But if there is a critical lesson that our experience of COVID-19 has taught us, it is this – technology today means that social distancing and physical isolation constitute no barrier when it comes to making an impact on society. Even in solitude, there is so much we can still do for the others in our midst.
Numerous individuals and organizations have demonstrated this point, but I thought one of the most sterling exemplars is a Bangladeshi poet and migrant worker Zakir Hossain Khokan. In 2019, I invited Zakir, a two-time winner of the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, to visit our school campus. He addressed our Literature students, who were enthralled by his bittersweet accounts of leaving home, as well as all the amusing anecdotes he shared. So imagine the shock they experienced when I had to inform them this year that Zakir was among the thousands of migrant workers who had tested positive for COVID-19. Our class asked plaintively: What can we do to help?
Members of our Literature class quickly joined others in helping to promote a campaign by #HomeForAll, an initiative by the Collective of Migrant Efforts, which aimed to rally donations of over $800,000 to provide more than 20,000 migrant workers with hot food, sanitation supplies and Internet connectivity. Hearteningly, the collective has now more than surpassed this target.
As the weeks passed, the Literature class and I followed Zakir’s updates on social media, rejoicing when his condition was improving. We watched with awe and admiration at how Zakir remained busy with coordinating donations, hygiene essentials and reading materials even from his hospital bed. Constantly inundated with calls, he tapped on his 450-strong network of migrant readers, who were residing in different dormitories, to notify him of needy cases. He even activated mental health teams to visit migrant workers from room to room, to check in on workers’ emotional well-being.
If Zakir can do so much, why not any one of us? Certainly, young Singaporeans have risen to the challenge. A group of five former Raffles Institution students initiated Project Circuit, an online platform which allows A-level students to register for free tuition sessions from their seniors who have graduated from junior college – provided they repay the kindness by donating to charitable organizations supporting COVID-19 relief efforts. Likewise, a group of 15 former School of the Arts (SOTA) graduates started Project Postcard, raising funds by selling a set of 13 original postcards designed by the group, featuring their artworks that portray the experiences of migrant workers, far away from home. Such initiatives reveal the passion and drive that our younger generations are capable of demonstrating; they exemplify precisely the spirit of service that, like Zakir’s, can inspire us all.
The past few months have allowed for a quantum leap in our understanding of not just home-based learning but of ourselves – the degree of our psychological resilience and the depth of our collective compassion. Granted, this experience of COVID-19 has exposed many gaps, which we as a society need to identify in order to fill. But this period has also brought new opportunities and new ways to engage students, through means we have never thought of. We can break traditional moulds and patterns of behaviour, re-establishing and deepening our connections with one another even if we must maintain physical distance.
At the end of the school term last year, on my very last day with the school, a boy from my Secondary 2 English class approached me outside the staff room. “Mr Ow Yeong, I have something for you!” Grinning with delight, he held in his hands a thin black notebook, its cover beautifully illustrated with calligraphic lettering, in gold ink, with – what else? – Pascal’s quotation glistening with glitter: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Today, in the evenings at the end of a long workday, whenever I sit in silence on my own and watch the sun’s rays spill through the window, I remind myself that I am not alone. That notebook sits quietly with me.