In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote about the need for what he calls “social solidarity” during times of crisis, which he defines as “the interdependence between individuals and across groups.” Instead of thinking about our response to the coronavirus pandemic as “social distancing,” he encourages us to reframe our ideas of the social to strengthen those ties that keep communities strong while maintaining our physical distance. Rather than “social distancing,” we need to maintain physical distancing as well as social connection. Bringing our bodies into proximity has become dangerous, but it is equally dangerous to keep our selves from being in proximity to others.
Right now the only people from whom I’m not physically distant are my kids. They’re the only people I’ve touched in weeks, and when they’re not here I feel the absence of that contact keenly. In some ways that’s the hardest part of this period of distancing. Socially, I actually don’t feel distant from people at all – I’ve been talking, FaceTiming, and Zoom chatting with friends and family, and I see my students and colleagues regularly through virtual tools. But the absence of physical presence is harder to take.
It makes me wonder how much of what we call social is actually physical, and how we have just misnamed or misperceived the role of bodies in human connection. That age-old divide between spiritual and material, mind and body – a gendered divide – is laid bare by our inability to touch each other now. It is just like humans – and patriarchy – to misunderstand the relationship between mind and body so thoroughly that we don’t even know what it is about our social bonds that keeps us alive.
I’m reminded now of Prior Walter, survivor of another plague, AIDS, in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, whose plea to the angels – “More Life” – becomes a collective blessing. It’s a blessing derived from the Jewish custom of saying “l’chayim,” to life, as we raise our glasses in celebration as well as mourning. It’s a shared task, like the “Great Work” Prior references in Angels: life is a project undertaken together.
That’s another lesson distance teaches: that the social is life. It’s like the old aphorism about a tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it – if we are not in community with each other, who are we, do we exist? The Jewish sage Hillel taught, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”
Social distancing is the solution to a plague that thrives on our closeness. It’s made us realize how dependent we are on each other, on people we don’t even know, how someone coming into contact with another person even thousands of miles away can doom us, sitting right here in our living rooms.
It’s also made me realize how dependent I am on others in positive ways, how even the act of walking around campus saying casual hellos to those I know on the paths is an act that in some tiny way sustains me, gives me life, and how the plague brings to light all the various ways (not just one!) you are alive, and therefore all the many ways you can also die.
Dying inside, dying of anticipation, dying for what you can’t have, dying of excitement, dying to try something new, dying dying dying.