Or is this an Opportunity to Regain our Humanness?
Almost twenty years ago, when the Twin Towers were taken down by commercial airplanes commandeered by terrorists, there was a common enemy quickly identified that united us as a nation. We were brought together by a common drive to ensure “Never Again”, never again will we allow an attack to happen on U.S. soil. We did not walk away unscathed, however. As Brené Brown found in her research and has given voice to, we moved forward, but we were changed; we became a generation of fear, a generation driven by scarcity. Our naivete had been lost.
As someone who is an extrovert, I have suffered from the isolation forced upon us by COVID. I have noticed recently how people avert their eyes (all we now see of each other’s masked faces) as they walk by and don’t even make eye contact. In this time, as we mark 1 year since COVID began to change our world and became a global pandemic, I find myself questioning whether or not we are losing our humanity. There is no common enemy to unite us in this battle with a virus, an invisible adversary. Rather, we are divided and isolated in our fight to stop the spread of this detrimental virus. We are laden with fear, the air is thick with it, even if we don’t feel fear ourselves at an individual level. This is not just a national dilemma, but rather one that has had global implications.
I have seen friendly neighbors avoid us “like the plague.” I have seen judgments passed and hurtful comments spat about for either wearing a mask or not wearing a mask. Division, resentment, frustration have grown in the space of our isolation. I have seen people walk out of the way to avoid me and others. It is as if we are each a potential and deadly weapon in the spread of this unseen disease. We can’t even, won’t even, look at each other. I suppose in many ways, we are indeed each a potential carrier of illness and harm. And yet in our isolation and in our humanity, we are each longing to be seen, understood, heard, at least I know I am.
I have observed lately, people on the brink, on the edge, if you will. Not only do I feel the fear of this virus and the weariness as the isolation goes on, I have felt the anxiety of unexpected responses. A common “Hello! How are you?” may unleash relief and joy at being acknowledged, or may unleash judgment, or even rage and anger built up over the months and months of loneliness, stress, and fear. I have found I rarely know what I will get back if I make eye contact or dare to say hello.
Likewise, I have seen and sensed and heard the fear when people dare to acknowledge and see me. They are also likely wondering if I am on the edge and which way I will fall if somehow provoked. I was recently at the gym for a swim – cue the judgment and my need to justify how I was being safe – and had also given birth 7 weeks prior. This was my maiden post-partum swim, so to speak. I had diligently made appointments to swim three to four times a week during my pregnancy, from the time when our gym’s pool reopened by appointment until two days before my daughter was born. Yes, I had a pregnancy and a baby during COVID – that is another topic for exploration.
The same lifeguard had been on duty, also a mother, and had always waved from the other end of the pool to acknowledge my presence. Now and then, she even shouted a word of encouragement and had dared to ask when I was due. Upon my return to the pool, she briskly walked over in her mask, maintaining some distance, and said “I was so excited to see your name on the schedule! How are you? How is your baby? Did you have a girl or a boy? Can I see a picture?” Then “Gosh, is that okay? I’m so sorry, I hope this is okay.” Her fear of judgment nearly consumed her joy and I wanted to hug her to reassure her not only was it okay for her to ask about me and my baby, and to ask to see a picture, it was the greatest gift I’d received in months! I was so grateful to be seen and acknowledged, to be asked after, I felt tears spring up in my eyes!
Last week, I ventured out to the mall which was desolate. I entered a store and was so grateful the woman working was friendly and asked about my baby in tow. We chatted and discussed the current COVID-environment. She mentioned she had been afraid I would be put off by her friendliness. Just the week before, a woman had been in and when the saleswoman had leaned in and asked her to speak up so that she could help, the customer went fleeing and called corporate to report the “inappropriate behavior.” The kind saleswoman said it was the first time in 15 years of working retail, a complaint had been filed against her with corporate, a complaint for simply trying to be helpful.
I am concerned by the levels of tension and fear that may or may not be obvious at first glance, bubbling beneath the surface. I worry about all the people hanging on by a thread. These days, I often worry we are losing our ability to connect as human beings in this mess, as if this virus is the final straw that will break us, not of our need for social connection, but of our ability to fulfill this social need. What I see is a desperate human need for connection and the longer we go without, the less empathy we have, the less ability we have to meet our needs for connection. This makes me think of going without food and water for too long. Either you lose your appetite, or you gorge yourself only to vomit it all up. People are starving and many can only see their own needs. We’ve been without connection for so long now; we no longer even know how to respond when it is offered, or we’re so hungry for it, we’re senselessly clawing and clamoring to get our own needs met we fail to see the needs of others.
Of course, some may say people are showing kindness and empathy when they walk to the other side of the street as me and my kids and baby pass by. Perhaps they aren’t thinking of me and my brood as possible infectors but rather are going out of their way to keep us safe. Perhaps. Some may also say empathy and connection are happening more in the workplace as work has been fully integrated with the home, and the kids popping in, once an exception, is now more normal. Perhaps. We are indeed finding new ways to try to connect and I have been encouraged by the creativity people have exhibited in finding ways to gather online. While online gatherings and phone calls certainly help, do they really fulfill us in a sustainable way? As we slowly begin to interact with others again, I can’t help but observe, perhaps we will all need to be re-socialized. The social skills we learned as children we will need to learn again. Perhaps it was time for a tune-up in our social abilities anyway. I certainly hope we can come back kinder, more accepting, and more empathetic.
What do you think? How are your levels of empathy holding up? Are your needs for social connection being met or are you hungry for connection? How are you doing, really? How are you feeling, truly? What is your degree of internal fear? What is your level of tolerance for the external environment of fear? Is our collective fear bringing us together or driving us apart? Are we losing our ability to socialize and fulfill this human need for connection? Have we been starved of human connection too long? Are we losing our empathy and our ability to see, truly see, one another and have patience and grace with each other?