A Year of Social Distance
Sometimes I forget what life was like in the “Before Times,” when we New Yorkers rode the subway during rush hour in tightly packed cars, our bodies pressed up on nearly all sides next to strangers so close we could see their Candy Crush scores or read a few lines of a book without ever knowing the title. Or when we stood around tiny tables in crowded bars sharing pitchers and platters of melted cheese in one form or the other, raising our voices to a volume that made us hoarse the next morning. Or when we ran out of the house, maskless, and got to see familiar faces of neighbors walking their dogs and people spilling out of full elevators heading to work and school drop-off.
Over the past year, my life has collapsed inward to its most essential form. Everything deemed non-essential has been relegated to a screen. Last month, Amanda Mull wrote in The Atlantic about weak ties, the people who we move with through our daily lives but don’t reasonably count as “friends” in a traditional sense, and yet, from whom in our shared experience of the world, we find joy and support.
In my non-essential life, there were routines and rituals and relationships that sustained me. Every morning, I left my house at the same time as my neighbor, John. John is blind, which at first shaped our interactions. I would help him get his ticket for the crosstown bus that we rode together. We would chat casually while we waited for the bus to arrive, as I helped him navigate the curb and the steps to get on, and as we stood packed together in the throng of humans moving at rush hour. Rather than reading and responding to a litany of emails that landed in my inbox overnight, I learned about John’s life, his job, his family. And he learned about mine. In the course of the last couple of years, over the three stops across East 86th Street until John got off the bus just one stop before mine, we became friends.
Nearly every day, I bought my coffee from the same cart, exchanging pleasantries about the weather or the city’s recent events with people in line and the guy behind the counter. And each week, I dropped into the same nail salon, where the manicurists knew me by name and always asked about my children, and I about theirs. Every month, I met up with a group of neighborhood moms I had become friends with during my first maternity leave. We met one day in the park with our newborn boys, all born within days or weeks of one another in March of 2013. Impromptu park outings with newborns turned into daily walks and texts. We grabbed on to one another and held on tight, each of us longing for connection and camaraderie during the deeply lonely months of the fourth trimester. To call these remarkable women “weak ties” insults the incredible solidarity and support we continue to offer one another during vital and difficult moments in our shared lives. (There really is no substitute for female friends.) Our “March Mom’s” dinners were a high point each month that I looked forward to with great anticipation. And yet, this celebration of friendship and motherhood, like the rest of my non-essential life, has been radically changed. Sushi dinners have converted to group FaceTimes, usually with a kid or two lurking in the background protesting bedtime. And my daily commute now consists of placing another pod into my kitchen coffeemaker and the six-foot distance between my desk and my bed.
To name these missed moments is to list the ordinary pleasures enjoyed in the “Before Times.” This is to say nothing of the “water cooler” chit-chat, work lunches, and after-work cocktails I enjoyed through a wide range of professional relationships. Not to mention the random train or plane seatmates over my many years of work travel who became fast Facebook friends. As you can tell, I am a super-extrovert — very often to my husband’s chagrin, especially when date night turns into a dinner party with the tables on either side of us in a crowded restaurant, along with our waiter too! All of these points of contact with the wider world were moments of great joy in my life. To state the obvious, Zoom is not a substitute for any of them.
Of course, the wide web of relationships from which the diverse fabric of our lives is woven is no substitute for the strong ties of parents and partners and even children on whom we have grown to depend so much during this trying time. But this period of history that has sequestered us from each other has further underscored what we already knew to be true: humans are inherently relational creatures. Cutting ourselves off from all of the weak ties that inspire and sustain us puts undue pressure on the closer relationships on which we so deeply depend. How could my absolutely adoring husband ever be expected to carry all of this relational weight?
Over the past year, every one of us has endured realities and events that we could never have foreseen. This has been a period of extreme isolation and for many of us, including me, illness. Untimely deaths, both within our own lives and on a vast scale. Many are experiencing economic hardship and uncertainty. Throughout this trying time, extreme political polarization and deliberately divisive media inside information silos have pushed us to dehumanize and villainize one another. As our public health systems have come under strain, so has our mental health. Our partners at Making Caring Common just conducted and released new research demonstrating that loneliness is off the charts, especially among young adults and, perhaps less surprisingly, mothers with young children. As I listened to the New York Times “Primal Scream” interviews, I found my breath in my throat, unable to swallow, holding back my own primal scream. As a working mom of two young children – with remarkable support from my partner, nearly full-time in-person school and childcare – I’m still hitting my absolute mental load limit.
Loneliness isn’t a physical state, but rather a feeling. This feeling is quite distinct from solitude, which can be a peaceful aloneness. As our soon-to-be installed Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy writes in his most recent book Together: “Loneliness is the subjective feeling that you’re lacking the social connections you need. It can feel like being stranded, abandoned, or cut off from the people with whom you belong — even if you are surrounded by other people.” As my children Zoom-bomb meeting after meeting at my work-from-home desk, I am mourning the loss of the many people who during the “Before Times” swarmed my daily life with casual interactions. This is a new kind of loneliness for me, feeling excruciatingly cut off from the messiness of city living that I didn’t realize I loved and longed for so much.
In the spectrum of idealist to skeptic, I tend towards the obscenely optimistic, constantly in search of the possibilities and ’how might we?’s, which offers a grain of salt to those who do not always see the glass half-full. Once the distancing fog of pandemic has lifted and we can reconnect with our broad web of ‘non-essential’ friends, my hope is that this extended, overwhelming period of relational withdrawal will help us see how we depend on one another, not just in ways that are essential to our survival, but in ways that are essential to our thriving.
In Mull’s piece in The Atlantic, she notes that American culture prizes close ties over weak ones, romantic love over community care. But culture is made up of the tiny choices we each make day to day, week to week. After the social distance of the 1918 flu pandemic, America erupted into the sustained debauchery of the Roaring Twenties. No doubt, when the world is vaccinated and the time of social distance has passed, we will all have new appetite for late-night ragers. But with the choice of how to spend our time and with whom, I dream that we will also choose to spend more of it in loving kindness, not just towards our children, partners, and parents, but also towards other members of our broader community, who help lift our eyes and sustain our gaze. The person behind the counter taking our order. The person waiting in front of us at the DMV. Or even, the driver who just cut us off. The mom in the park sitting alone with her newborn. Each of these people has a story. They have experienced love and loss, just like the rest of us. What would happen if we each pushed ourselves to move beyond the rote “hello” and “I’m fine” to something more? What would you ask if you could? And, what would happen if you did? Perhaps with the new-found realization of how dear the choice really is, we’ll get to make those around us feel that much dearer to us and to each other, meeting our shared desire to be seen, known, and loved.