5 Social Distancing Thoughts I’ve Had, In No Particular Order
Times are strange for us all right now, and there are no easy answers. Even the experts can only provide best guesses as to what we might expect, and while we should be doing our best to listen to them, we also must learn to do the most unsatisfying thing of all, which is to accept that we cannot yet plan for a concrete timeline or know exactly what will happen. Right now, we are separated from one another in a way we never have been before, and we don’t know exactly when that will ease. And as someone who has been living alone in this time, it has left me to sit with my internal monologue in a way I am usually very good at avoiding, and to really try and sift through what are the intrusive, anxiety-driven spirals and what are the points worth considering more carefully. Here are five of the more cogent thoughts I’ve been sitting with lately, in no particular order.
1. It’s fascinating how much this entire situation has upended the (maddeningly) pervasive internet discourse around being an introvert, or canceling plans, or ignoring the people in your life in some funhouse mirror idea of “self-care.” What was so recently a fierce point of pride and an identity marker, the genesis of a thousand viral tweets treating bailing on social engagements as a personality type, has now become a forced lifestyle for even the most staunchly pro-solitude among us. As someone who thoroughly identifies as an extrovert (in the most literal sense — I generally draw my energy from being around others), the whole cultural language we’ve created, which treats friendship as a burden and introversion as a sign of moral superiority, has always fatigued me.
And while, yes, there are still those who hold onto the performative denigration of platonic human connection (I’ve seen memes about how COVID has greatly reduced the viable excuses for ghosting someone, a dark thought if there ever were one in this time), I think that there has been a general tonal shift towards a greater appreciation for the connections we are lucky enough to have. Treating our relationships with a greater degree of care, as we no longer have the luxury of taking them for granted (which I fully admit I have been guilty of, like any of us), is undoubtedly a good thing. Saying we love each other more, calling each other back, making space for one another and reaching out to see that we’re okay — all of these are coping mechanisms for the current reality that I hope remains with us when it’s over. I hope we will loosen our grip on this narrow, often psychologically dubious interpretation of “introversion” that often translates to “disrespectful of the people in our lives who care about us.” Even introverts need connection. Treating others’ time and emotions as disposable is not a form of self-care. And hopefully, when we’ve all been so brutally confronted with what a life truly devoid of most contact looks like, we will remember those things for years to come.
2. One of the things I’ve always admired most about my husband is his unfailing ability to give focused energy to what is in his control and release his emotional investment in what is not. He will not stay up all night worrying about something he can’t change, just like he won’t leave a single stone unturned for a goal or project in which he has a real say. As a sufferer of anxiety (like so many of us), I often find myself stuck in vicious cycles of the opposite. I find myself overwhelmed with directionless panic about things like when a travel ban will be lifted, and yet supremely avoidant around things that could possibly help my much-needed sleep hygiene, like being rigorous about getting good exercise in this time. Particularly in the past few days, I’ve been trying to shift that balance towards his way of doing things, at minimum when it comes to how much mental energy I will give the big, scary, abstract stuff. And when it comes to just how long this social distancing might last — how long until life starts to feel even remotely “normal” again, though that’s likely an unproductive word — I find that this thought has been the hardest one to let go. I see a headline saying we could be living this way through the summer, and I am thrown into a deep, heart-pounding sense of anxiety, and the truth is, I haven’t yet found a good way to stop that. (For the record, when I’ve asked him his advice, it usually involves meditation and limiting my screen time. He’s obnoxiously pragmatic that way.)
3. The one thing I wish I was seeing more of every day when I log onto social media (and don’t tell me to stop using social media, I’m not here for that kind of accountability) is gratitude. The highlight of every day for me is 7 PM, when New York collectively leans out of our windows and applauds the medical staff who are putting everything on the line daily to get us through this, because it’s consistently a moment of such pure, distilled gratitude and recognition. This could be so much worse for us. Those of us lucky enough to not be on the front lines have so much to be appreciative of. It is only through working together that any of this will improve. And in a time when we are all so atomized, to be able to engage in this as a group — to be able to smile at our neighbors and not at a screen for once — floods my brain with serotonin every single time. I wish the discourse around this online could meet that level of collective appreciation and optimism through a sense of solidarity and shared purpose. This is not to say, of course, that there isn’t plenty to be mad about or fight for together — I am just as moved and motivated by labor strikes for better conditions as I am by the evening cheers — but I think that even in our struggles for more, we are better equipped when we approach the situation through a lens of gratitude rather than a focus on how bad it feels to have to stay home. I would love to see more people sharing what they are lucky to have, or glad to be doing, and fewer memes about how social distancing is ruining their spring.
4. I wonder what the Great Hug Famine of 2020 will do to us as a society. My friends have always known me as the person who doesn’t like to be touched, and the closest among them will sometimes tease me by insisting on giving me one of those big, squeezy, lift-you-off-the-ground hugs because they know it makes me freeze with discomfort. But I’ve found myself nearly brought to tears by how badly I miss those terrible hugs, and how much I allowed myself to take them for granted. It was easy to think of myself as the kind of person who doesn’t enjoy platonic physical affection because it was always so available to me. I knew on some level that I always had people around me who would give it, maybe even insist on giving it. For the more touchy-feely among us, I wonder just how much this prolonged lack of contact is taking a toll if it’s already begun to impact me in such a way. We talk a lot about the economic impacts of this, the structural impacts, the ways in which the social isolation will have an effect on our GDP or our small businesses. And those things are incredibly important. But the impact of not feeling someone brush past you for months on end — I can only imagine how much that will change us for the rest of our lives. In my case, at least, I may leave this period a hugger.
5. There has been a good amount of debate around the best way to use this time for both mental health and minimizing potential blowback once life largely resumes. As usual, there are the productivity gurus, placing an almost deranged emphasis on the individual’s ability to maximize the value of each one of his or her hours. This is the right time to learn a new, marketable skill! To complete each of your unfinished tasks! To adopt a new, hyper-optimized daily routine that entirely staves off the crushing ennui of working from home during a pandemic! And then there are the self-care gurus, emphasizing the need to lean into your most base, carb-and-alcohol-laden coping mechanisms, insisting that simply making it through each day is the only victory you really need to be concerned about. (For what it’s worth, I have consumed my fair share of both carbs and alcohol, but am well aware that if I do not want this isolation to take a dire toll on my health, those things cannot be the norm.) I have found that for myself, as usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The idea of “productivity” should be as always met with a good deal of skepticism, as it never really specifies what all of that aimless “productivity” is actually being used to create. But similarly, you cannot allow yourself to make this time a lawless one, or one in which you give in to everything that feels good in the moment but which accumulates to a much-reduced overall sense of wellness.
I think the star that is most valuable to follow at this time is “structure.” Whatever that structure may look like for you, making sure that you are setting a framework for yourself and following it when no one is looking — and making the right choices because you believe you are deserving of them — is what will ultimately lead you to the best-lived life during this time. We can reach beyond drinking wine and playing Nintendo Switch every night without immediately hooking into the idea that if we don’t emerge from our homes knowing how to code, we are a failure. Ask yourself what is the life your body, your brain, and your bank account most deserve at this time and provide yourself a basic framework for what each day should look like to get there. Some days can be cheesecake on the couch, but others should be focusing on a productive task that takes you out of the endless panic scrolling. Make time for both, give permission for both, and you just might have a shot at getting out of this okay.
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