Each contact with a human being is so rare, so precious, that one should preserve it.Anais Nin
Much has been, is being, and will be written about what is currently happening in our world right now. If you’re looking for answers from me, I’m fresh out. But I have been thinking about how things are going to look on the other side of this “curveball” we’ve all been thrown. It’s no doubt that all of us in ways large and small will be forever changed by this period of time, however long it lasts. There is no doubt that there are and will continue to be terrible outcomes from this period of fear, uncertainty and doubt – both in terms of the disease itself and the economic carnage that seems all but certain now for our nation and for the world. That last sentence is going to be the last of my doom and gloom in this post, so if you’re looking for more of that, move right along, it’s easy to find right now.
One thing I have been reminded of in the past couple of weeks as we’ve been largely confined to our home and physically separated from our friends and coworkers, for the most part, is a prayer card I kept with me in my wallet for years as a young divorced single woman. It was called “Prayer in Time of Loneliness.” I would look to it when I was despairing about wondering if I would always be alone, and tempted to stay at home alone in my apartment rather than face the possibility of more rejection if I went out with friends and didn’t meet anyone who might be “the one.” It is still in a drawer of my office at home, and it’s been years since I thought of it. Normally, the first paragraph was most comforting for me back then. This past week, I have not been able to keep the first sentence of the second paragraph out of my mind.
“At the same time, remind me that I also have need of others, for I am a social being.”
It’s true. We are social beings. I’m hopeful that this time of “self quarantine,” “social distancing” and “conscious isolation” can actually remind us of this. I’m not the first person to observe that we are more connected to the world technologically than anyone ever thought possible even 30 years ago, but that electronic connectedness is not at all the same thing as making a personal, physical connection with other human beings. So much can be done remotely now, but there is no substitute for a hug, a handshake, looking someone in the eye, a pat on the back, or a knowing look from reading the body language of the people you’re with in the room.
Long before this virus shut down our in-person social lives and greatly limited the number of personal interactions we have each day, I’d wondered about what the long-term impact of the technology so prevalent in every aspect of our lives today would be on the social skills and social lives of younger people, and how that would translate long-term in the workplace and society in general.
The art of the actual phone call, or a proper business or personal letter, or remaining fully engaged in a face to face meeting (as opposed to furiously typing notes on a laptop or trying to secretly keep up with the news on Twitter) seems to be fading. Text messaging is convenient. You don’t have to answer right away, you can respond at your leisure. And it’s efficient! Who needs to go to the trouble of typing out all of the extra letters and punctuation of “I don’t know” when a simple IDK will do? Who needs to worry about proper spelling and punctuation? That’s so like, 1975, man!
Don’t get me wrong, the advances in technology that are allowing millions of people around the world to continue to be productive and move business ahead as much as possible right now are life-changing and unbelievably powerful. The ability to videoconference or FaceTime colleagues, customers, and loved ones alike while still maintaining mandated social distancing is life-saving. The tasks that can now be done with the push of a button rather than weeks of sending contracts, invoices and funds by mail for “hardcopy must be received” type transactions has changed everything from logistics to food supply to medical advances and treatments.
We need all of this right now, and more that is being developed literally as I type. This isn’t a knock on technology at all.
Much like diet and exercise, good sleep and nutrition, or any other pair of complementary pieces go together to improve the quality of health, life, and our personal well-being – – – technology and social interaction absolutely must go together for the best possible physical and emotional well-being. One cannot be a replacement for the other. If you exercise constantly but eat horribly, if you get plenty of rest but you don’t get enough of the vitamins and minerals that your body needs, then you are never going to get the best possible result from any one activity. Technology and real-life social connection, in my opinion, go together the same way. You might be the most well-connected person with every gadget imaginable to get access to anything or anyone you need quickly, but if you don’t have healthy personal connections through physical interaction with others, multiple studies over the years (including this one) have shown that you are more likely to have mental and physical health issues, and even reduced lifespan.
As wonderful as social media, email and text messages are for staying “connected” with loved ones and friends in these crazy times, long before COVID-19 came calling it was all too easy to fall into a more cavalier attitude about being up close and personal with people in our everyday interactions. Yes, curbside grocery pickup or even better, home delivery of groceries is convenient and easy now. But the downside is that you miss the happenstance running into a neighbor or someone from church – making pleasantries, exchanging a handshake or hug, seeing genuine pleasure in another person’s face and vice versa when you met by chance somewhere like that. I think of the first time my stepdaughter and I ran into my her third grade teacher at the grocery store. Recognizing her familiar face in an unusual but familiar place, getting a hug from her, and seeing that she needed milk and cheese just like we did made Madison feel like she had a little bit different connection with her than she did before.
Shaking hands with a potential customer as you meet face to face is a powerful connector. Whether we are aware or not, that handshake is a sign of respect. Welcome into our office. We are going to listen to each other and work together. I am interested in what you have to say. There is no other meeting more important to me than this meeting, right now. This brief but powerful gesture simply cannot be replicated by the little “dingdong” sound when someone new has entered the virtual conference room.
Part of the appeal of going to dinner in a restaurant is not just the food. It’s sharing a space, it’s allowing others to share their hospitality with us, it’s the feeling that even if we don’t know anyone else in a restaurant, we’re sharing an experience with them and there are connections made – whether it’s for a quick bite for lunch or an hours-long multi-course dining experience. Room service or takeout have their place, when it’s convenient, or we aren’t feeling well, or we just don’t have the time or interest in going out. But even the most harried traveler will eventually feel the need or desire to eat “out,” even if it’s a table for one.
Finally, the powerful spirituality of sharing one’s home or physical space with others is the ultimate gift of love and compassion. There are myriad places we each could be right now, but I have invited you here and you have accepted the invitation. Come, and enter into my home. I care for you and want you to feel as comfortable here as you do in your own home, whether it’s for a brief visit, dinner and conversation, or a longer stay. Think of how much different that is than simply sending a text message or email, or even FaceTime! Think about it – you always feel emotionally closer to someone when you have been a guest in their home or they have been a guest in yours.
Science has shown that when we are sharing physical space with another person, we start to mirror each other’s body language and even our brains start to work in similar fashion. Of course that doesn’t mean we start to think alike, but we start to anticipate how a conversation is going to go, how a point is going to be perceived, whether a joke is going to be funny or not.
Whether you consider yourself an introvert or extrovert, the life of the party or a wallflower, a curmudgeonly grump or a social gadfly, we all benefit by physical connection and interaction. I hope that when this period of forced “apartness” has passed, we will all be able to have a renewed appreciation for the opportunity to share space and break bread together.
I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.Dr. Brene’ Brown