My mother had a favorite joke on the subject of superstition: “Well, I’m not superstitious,” she‘d say. “But I’ll tell you one thing: I would never sleep thirteen in a bed.”
Nevertheless, it’s a fact that for several people to share a bed was once much more common in our culture than it has since become. One reason may simply have been the relative shortage of furniture (you may recall that Shakespeare, in his will, left his wife his “second-best bed”), another the prevalence of large families together with inadequate housing. But there must also have been something appealing about the comfort and safety of close human contact, especially at night, in a world which was much more aware then of external dangers, while at the same time blissfully ignorant of the contagions which bedevil us today.
Physical intimacy, even among families, is no longer taken as much for granted as it once was. In the small family of two parents and two children, in which I grew up, any hugging that took place was more likely to occur between our parents than between either of them and either of us kids. There was also much more emphasis on privacy in performance of certain bodily functions than people of previous eras had been able to enjoy. And as most of us now know from our friendly local shrink, it is to the absence or scarcity of such closeness that many of our mental tribulations can be traced.
But the other side of this coin is the state or condition we know as singleness, solitude, or alone-ness. In a prison setting, “solitary confinement” is considered an extra penalty – though early penal reformers actually considered it, together with such other restraints as enforced silence, to be beneficial and reformative. They built huge facilities in which each inmate would have the minimum contact with any other prisoner, or even with any guard or other staff member. (Ironically one of California’s many state prisons is still known as Soledad [Spanish for “solitude”], but only because that is the name of the nearby town, which in turn derived its name from the local Spanish Mission whose name means “Our Lady of Solitude.”)
If you want to get at the real essence of one-ness, all you have to do is go back to the beginning of time, a hitherto hallowed field that, however modern, cosmologists have audaciously made their intellectual playground. Of course, just as children ask, “Where did I come from?” (and rarely get a satisfactory answer), we all want to know how the universe got started. There have been respected modern thinkers such as the British scientist Fred Hoyle who preferred to think of the whole thing not ever really getting started at all, but just always being around, in what he liked to call a “Steady State.”
There were other scientists who dared to think the unthinkable: that it had all begun with some kind of incredibly small “something,” which (for want of a better term) they called a SINGULARITY. And going even further into forbidden territory (unless you want to count the 17th-century calculation by Archbishop Ussher that Creation began at 6 pm on Saturday, October 22, 4004), they’ve had the audacity to come up with the figure of 13.82 billion years for the age of the universe.
Mr. Hoyle was so unhappy with this concept that he publicly disparaged it. Speaking on the BBC on March 28, 1949, he ridiculed it as the theory of the “Big Bang.” (I was then 15 years old and living in England, and could have heard that broadcast, but it was on a new “highbrow” channel called the “Third Programme,” and my radio interests were much more on comedy shows.)
Of course, the great irony is that, although it retained Hoyle’s mocking name, the Big Bang Theory is the one that ultimately prevailed and is now the accepted view of most cosmologists.
So, we are left with that strange “singularity,” at the beginning of time, which one might call a preverberation of all the loneliness that still afflicts us. And despite the lip-service we pay to concepts of union with our fellows – whether social, political, or personal – we ourselves are essentially singular and single entities.
It was the poet William Cowper who put the paradox so poignantly:
How sweet, how passing sweet, is solitude!
But grant me still a friend in my retreat,
Whom I may whisper – solitude is sweet.