“Be kind, be calm and be safe” – Dr. Bonnie Henry
By now we have all realized that COVID-19 is in our lives to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. We aren’t looking at just a couple of weeks or months until things can go back to ‘normal’, but more likely another year or more until the world health authorities can develop and distribute a vaccine. Even then it may not be possible to go back to the ‘normal’ we had before we were forced to realize just how easily a disease can spread in our current society. The awareness of the danger, and at least some of the measures we have had to enact to manage it, are here to stay. So we’d better get used to them.
Some of these measures are easier than others. Washing or sanitizing our hands, reducing travel, and staying home when you or a family member are sick. They are simple to do, are only mildly restrictive, or are short term inconveniences that are easy to put up with for the comfort of feeling safe. Others are more difficult, and have long term impacts on our lives. One of those is social distancing.
The dictionary definition of social distancing is “the practice of maintaining a greater than usual physical distance from other people or avoiding direct contact with people in public places during the outbreak of a contagious disease”. It’s actual definition during this pandemic has become quite different. At this time in many areas of the world social distancing means staying home, only seeing the people in your household, and not going out for any reason. For some it includes going to work or the grocery store or for a walk, but wearing a mask and/or maintaining a 6-foot physical distance at all times while doing so. Even in areas where restrictions are slowly being loosened it means grad ceremonies, weddings, funerals, parties, concerts, and other events involving large gatherings of people are cancelled; some businesses like entertainment, community, or physical fitness based facilities are still shut down; and events with 50 or less people need to ensure physical distancing is enforced in order to be allowed. We are no longer able to spend time with the people we know in the ways we are used to, and our avenues for meeting new people have been severely limited.
Human beings are social creatures. Belonging is important to all of us, and we define ourselves based on the relationships we have with others. Have you ever tried to introduce yourself to a new person without including a common connection to someone else? Whether it is a family member, a friend, a partner, a coworker, a professional, or even a casual acquaintance, in most cases we build connections with new people in our lives based on connections we have with existing ones. We use who we know like references on a resume whenever we are trying to start a new relationship or join a new community. Our existing connections need to be maintained in order to stay relevant, and to help us get to new connections in the future. Even the most introverted among us want to belong to something or someone, and no one wants to lose what we already have.
The people in our lives help make us who we are. They bring us new input in the form of thoughts, feelings, or events, and we need that new input in order to grow as people. The conversations, emotions, and experiences we share with them provoke responses in each of us, and with each response we either confirm or learn something about ourselves. So what do we do when those webs of connection are gone, when we are limited to just the few people we live or work with, when the only way to maintain those other relationships is at a distance or through technology? When we can’t see or touch most people in person, when sharing thoughts and feelings becomes more work than we are accustomed to, and when we can’t rely on new experiences to bring us closer together? How do we hold onto the people we care about and continue to grow as people, when we really don’t know how long this new world we live in is going to last?
There are no simple answers to these questions, it is something we will all need to figure out for ourselves. For some of us limiting our bubbles has been beneficial; it has allowed us to value the people already in our lives even more, to explore aspects of ourselves we hadn’t gotten to yet, and to learn ways to get the new experiences we crave within our own homes. For others of us it has brought unexpected feelings of isolation, loss, and fear that we are struggling to find ways to deal with. Regardless of where you are on this spectrum remember that there is no ‘wrong way’ to feel about this change, and that it won’t last forever. Things may not be exactly like they were before, but just like you the world will learn, adapt, and grow because of this new experience, and we will come out on the other side of it together.