Thursday, 23 April 2020

Thoughts on Isolation - notes by a submariner

Sent in by Bishop John Davies.

The following is written by an altar server at St Bride's Scottish Episcopal Church, Glasgow, who is also a submarine commander based at Faslane naval base on the Clyde.

We are naturally sociable creatures. Faced with the prospect of isolation at home, we will have to adapt in many ways. No doubt initially, for some at least, it will be an adventure and an opportunity to get on with all those chores and projects that daily life shunts down the priority list. I, for example, got out an old airfix plane today which had sat in a partly painted state for at least two months. Even those who are most content when in their own company may lose something by solitude being enforced. 

What, in your day to day life, provides the structure to create fulfilment and satisfaction at the end of the day? Work is the core component of a lot of people’s routine. The daily sequence of breaking one’s fast, dressing, commuting, clocking on, breaking for coffee &c. turns twenty four hours into defined, bound chunks. Weekend routine mid-week, from being made to stay at home, can develop lethargy, apathy and restlessness. Without work, something else needs to be created to punctuate the passing hours in the day. 

Those of you that have retired will have already made the transition to a self-driven routine but I suspect that scheduling, for some at least, is new and essential. Rather than looking ahead to a distant and undetermined end date, busyness and focus can be generated by working towards the next short term task. As each is accomplished and rewarded with satisfaction, we gain the motivation to tackle the next task.

On patrol on a Royal Navy Submarine, the commanders know from tradition the importance of routine. The day is split into six hour watches, with everyone on board alternating an on watch with an off watch. These regular handovers make the days pass surprisingly quickly and handing over to the same person four times a day creates a specific sort of social bond which is a hook to support the individual’s overall sense of contentment.

The layers of habit do not stop there. Famously, a sailor knows which day it is by the meal he is served for dinner. Some of these are old traditions with origins in the Church such as fish and chips on a Friday and a Sunday roast, but also curry Wednesdays, Steak Saturdays and other meals throughout the week. Modern innovation creates a Chinese takeaway night or a Nando’s night. The expressions ‘an army marches on its stomach’ and ‘a good chef means a happy ship’ are grounded in truth: food is vital to morale in the armed services and will be to those stuck at home too. Making nourishing meals with what you can will keep you healthy and happy. Perhaps not only for the food itself, but the time spent preparing and the satisfaction of creating.

Of habits that you may have, daily outdoor activity is one I encourage you to keep or pursue. It could be jogging, cycling, walking the dog, or gentle gardening (respecting the rules of social distancing). If you cannot go out, then open the windows and let the outside in, even just for five minutes. For months at a time, submariners are without the simple pleasures of breathing fresh air, looking at the sky or feeling the sun and wind. You do not have to be. Studies have proven that connection with nature can lower stress levels and improve individual’s wellbeing, so make time in your routine to do so.

One other major limitation to life on a submarine is the inability to communicate with family. Everyone on board receives a paragraph of unpunctuated block capitals text from home each week, but the necessity to stay hidden means that nothing can be sent in reply. Thankfully, life under COVID-19 is not quite as restrictive. Indeed, with modern technology we are always connected, and whilst pre-occupied with something else we can send an inane response to a joke that has been relayed from somewhere else. But not being able to support those quick messages with visits and face-to-face conversations will require adaptation. I urge you to schedule dedicated time for a real conversation with your loved ones, whoever that may be, a spouse, parent, child, grandchild or friend. Feeling locked in and alone will be softened by knowing that you have made time for others and they for you.

I expect that the proportion of people who can honestly say that they ‘have not noticed’ the effect of the virus will substantially diminish as we progress in these uncertain times. However, I trust that everyone will find their way through and that the turning point will become clear. We will adapt to new routines and find new ways to connect and communicate. Keep in touch everyone, and stay safe.