The Power of Proximity & Our Social Fabric

It’s early March and Texas and Mississippi are the first states to end all restrictive mandates related to the coronavirus.

This means that Texans and Mississippians will finally once again be able to see each other’s faces when they walk down the street or enter a store, for those who feel comfortable removing their masks. I’m not here to pass a verdict on mandates, necessarily — they’re intrusive, but at one point they likely did their part to slow the spread — however, I’m overjoyed that for at least two of our states, the end of this hell is in sight, and the governors are encouraging some sense of normalcy to return.

What I really mean to address is the damage to our social fabric — it was fraying before, and it seems that coronavirus put it on life support. You probably saw enthusiastic articles about people finding creative ways to support their neighbors, or connecting digitally, etc. etc., but I think for most people this shut-in period has been deeply depressing and stressful.

The longer this goes on, the greater is the sense that the cure is worse than the disease, and the apparent mainstream media agreement that it needs to stretch on indefinitely, even after most are vaccinated, is cruel to the people and businesses who are struggling.

Our public health officials, sufferers of coronavirus hysteria, and let’s be honest — the left — seem to be enthusiastic about moving all workplace and community interactions into digital spaces. Possibly forever. And I’m sure you’ve read something or watched something which heckled you to get on board, because that’s where we’re headed.

They forget, though, as always, that we are human — possessed of both bodies and souls — and that we need proximity to other humans and physical contact.

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What I worry about is a lasting imprint of the sense of fear.

Will we ever — and by we I mean the public at large — go back to shaking people’s hands? Or will that once confident, friendly gesture remain relegated to the dustbin of the “before” times, in terms of being socially acceptable?

Will people stop going in for the hug?

Will we never again strike up conversations with the person next to us in the grocery line, because it’s become standard to remain six feet apart?

I worry about the lasting impression — which has seemed totally pervasive over the past year, much more so than usual — that other people are dangerous and are to be avoided.

Let’s talk about how destructive that attitude is to humankind.

First, it’s contrary to what we know about touch. As you might imagine, physical touch is a human need, and the United States is considered “touch starved” to begin with. Touch researcher Tiffany Field talked in 2018 about field studies she conducted in airports which reveal that even pre-COVID it was rare for people to touch each other in public — hold hands, nap on a family member’s shoulder — because everyone is on their phones. Meanwhile, a 2020 study, conducted in the midst of the pandemic, reported that even casual physical contact staves off feelings of loneliness and reduces the receiver’s heart rate.

Contact is known to have many more benefits, such as strengthening immune response and reducing the stress hormone cortisol, and it remains a primary way that humans communicate. Another study found that people separated by a barrier but still able to touch one another could guess each other’s emotions — just through touch — with over 50-60% accuracy (depending on the emotion).

Knowing and understanding this, it becomes easy to see how a prolonged period of time in which it becomes highly discouraged or even practically criminal to touch other people is exceedingly detrimental to societal wellbeing. We’ve all heard the regrettable phrase “the new normal” — again, I would underscore that my greatest fear, where COVID is concerned, is that we are normalizing attitudes and behaviors completely at odds with what supports human communities.

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I worry that the Powers That Be will push us to expect a completely sanitized, contact-free, inorganic existence rather than strengthening our own health practices and immunity and bearing the risk of living in a community-oriented world.

The second “fault line” in our culture which was aggravated tremendously by the pandemic is the ongoing epidemic of loneliness. It’s become a trope at this point — despite the infinity of new ways technology has given us to communicate, we’re lonelier than ever.

It turns out digital communication is no substitute for the physicality of face-to-face. According to a 2018 Cigna study, only 53% of Americans say they have meaningful in-person interactions on a daily basis, and the generation most reliant on technology — Gen Z — was also the most likely to feel lonely. Young adults who are heavy social media users have been found to be 2 to 3 times more likely to feel that they are socially isolated.

What the pandemic has done is push nearly all of our activities onto the internet and atomize us even further.

I think it’s clear that there’s something about a real human presence, about eye contact in a physical space and reassuring touch, that binds us together in a way that nothing else can. At an individual level, our wellbeing depends on it, and on a global level, it’s these small interactions and biologically-rooted connections that form what we know as social cohesion. We have begun to destroy ourselves through addictive, inorganic technologies, and pandemic measures have asked us to relinquish true nourishment even further.

It’s our responsibility to say no.

When we feel safe and feel able, and when local restrictions lift, it’s our responsibility to bring community back with a vengeance. Attend to your own health and that of your family — get vaccinated, get tested, whatever it takes — but let’s reflect on what COVID took away and use this opportunity to start fresh.

When it’s all over, delete Zoom (at least for your personal activities).

Meet your book club in the park, or at a coffee shop. If you’re still not gathering at church, organize a smaller Bible study. Go running with a friend.

Build our physical communities again.

I feel, as a woman, that’s it’s a key part of what we do. We’re the connectors, the social butterflies, the nurturers — the stitching that holds the fabric together.

Check in, be present.

And with your love and dedication, our social networks will rise again. 🤝

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