I have written before in this blog about the Arnold Lobel story “Alone” in Days with Frog and Toad and I also write about it in Seen and Not Heard. It’s one of my favorites. And I have been thinking a lot lately about the phrase Lobel uses at the end of the story when he tells us that Frog and Toad spend the rest of a day “sitting alone together.”
What does it mean to be “alone together?” During the pandemic and its widespread “stay at home” orders around the world, which meant that many of us spent months isolated in our homes, the phrase “alone together” became a kind of slogan, intended to convey the message that “we’re all in this together”; that is, there is solidarity in collectively staying home to stop the spread of disease. Social distancing does not have to mean social isolation – we can stay connected without being physically together. We are each of us both alone and not alone.
As the pandemic thankfully seems to be coming to an end, I wonder about the longer-term effects of the pandemic’s enforced seclusion on our attitudes toward solitude and social connection. As it eases, I have been starting to process the intense isolation and dislocation I felt over the past 15 months. I think in some ways it was true that we did experience being “alone together” – we knew other people were feeling a similar sense of isolation, and this fostered a shared camaraderie and understanding.
Now, as society starts to move back toward less social distancing and more ordinary socializing, I wonder if for some people — who aren’t getting out and being with other people, for many different reasons — these feelings of isolation might not be more intense than they were during the pandemic, in the sense that now those feelings are more individual and less widely shared. Now we’re not alone together; we’re just alone.
In Lobel’s story, I think that the meaning of “alone together” is very different from the meaning of the pandemic slogan. In the story, Frog and Toad are not socially distanced nor do they do seem at all emotionally disconnected; they are together in a meaningful and genuine way.
I imagine, rather, that they are “alone together” because they are so comfortable with each other that they can each be “alone” while they are together; that is, they are both able, when together, to behave in the same way that they would if they were by themselves. We can be “alone together” with other people when there is such a depth of comfort and trust between us that we don’t have to shield our feelings, thoughts, reactions, and impulses – we can just be ourselves completely in the way we can be when we are alone. How wonderful that is, to have people in your life around whom you feel absolutely safe and accepted, and loved.
Jana Mohr Lone is the director of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children, and her most recent book is Seen and Not Heard.