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Despite social distancing, you can increase social engagement

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday April 12, 2020

These past three weeks of so-called “social distancing” have, ironically, been some of the most “socially connected” we’ve experienced in our life.

Indeed, for those of us in our bonus years, there are lots of folks to connect with, so we’ve been “socially connecting” all over the place – both in time and space.

In space, we’ve used this “alone” or “down” time to connect “horizontally” to our existing circles of neighbors, friends, and colleagues – people we once saw every day or week or at least frequently – just to say hello and ask if they need anything.

Since the coronavirus, we now communicate with these circles by email or phone or “see” them virtually – via Duo, Zoom, Facetime or some other digital medium.

Still, there is something different, something special, about calling friends only to check up on them, to make sure everything is OK.  No agenda. No wants. No advice. Just checking in.

Several of our friends now practice “drive-by” reunions.  Sometimes they call in advance with an alert that they’ll be in the neighborhood.  Others simply come by and toot their horn on a weekend afternoon and we have a chat in the driveway – keeping our six feet of social distance, of course.  We are now alert for toots, so I don’t think many are missed.

One of my good friends, Bart Physioc, a retired Army chaplain now living in Annapolis, has a name for all this (mostly) virtual socializing now going on.  “We are not really ‘social distancing’”, he says. “We are ‘spatially distancing’ while we remain socially engaged – in some cases, even more so.”

But don’t forget the “vertical” connections, the ones that go back through our personal history – i.e., relinking to long-lost or long-neglected relationships that go back in time.

I’m talking about people who’ve been important in our life’s story – friends, mentors, former students and colleagues and even some relatives – who have faded from the screen. Reason: Sometimes because “time marches on” and you simply lose track. Sometimes because of broken relationships.

Whatever the reason, however, once the connection is restored, it’s often like old times, where you can pick up where you left off many years ago.

The idea that we can expand our “social engagement” while “spatially distancing” resonates with me.  In fact, I’ve tended toward the wide-open throttle on both time and space – i.e., vertical and horizontal – connections.  For the most part, the past three weeks have been enriching and eye-opening experiences.

However benign or enriching this period of suspended animation may be for some – e.g., for those in their bonus years, living on a pension, or those who are still able to draw a paycheck – for others the COVID-19 crisis is a serious disruption, even a disaster.

For many, perhaps most, these weeks have been a source of constant uncertainty and increasing fear – and not a time when “one-size-fits-all” will work.

This reality was driven home to me earlier last week in an exchange with my good friend, Annapolitan Nishon Topjian, when he passed on a meme to remind me that “Yes, we are all in the same boat but we are not all in the same storm.”

It goes on to say, “For some people, it’s… a break.   It’s a breather, It’s a rest.  It’s a pause. A time to reconnect with families. Honestly, it’s kind of useful.”

But, for others, “…it’s a storm.  It’s a bit scary.  It’s disruptive.  It’s enough to make you stay up and watch the news and worry a bit.”

And for more than a few “…it’s a hurricane.  It’s tearing at boards.  It’s pulling off roofs.  It’s washing them out to sea.  It’s dark and unknown.  It’s life-changing.”

Finally, the Topjian-sponsored meme asks us to see and appreciate the difference between a break occasioned by a “shelter in place” order and a breaker occasioned by a storm – such as the shuttering of all “non-essential” businesses.  Some may experience both.  Some may be experiencing one or the other.  But they are not the same.

Most importantly, we cannot turn a blind eye to the hurricane that may be engulfing our neighbor.  Instead, the meme concludes, “Get on your knees for your friends. Get in someone else’s storm”.

Though we think of Americans, of ourselves, as rugged, up-by-the-bootstraps individualists – which we are and have been down through our history.  Still, we also embrace community.

Community is in our cultural DNA as we invest to help others and to repair the world.  Community is in our history and traditions with many examples of our joining together for the common good – from yesteryear’s barn-raising and the posse to today’s Neighborhood Watch or the Salvation Army’s Christmas pot…and let’s not forget those who choose to work as first-responders and those volunteering for military service.

So, today, as we experience firsthand or see on TV the empty malls, empty churches and synagogues, empty parking lots, largely traffic-free roads and highways, let’s remember that sheltering-in-place began – not with a law, not with the coercive power of government but with a plea to our sense of community responsibility from elected leaders and respected public health providers – people we chose to believe and whose vision for community and individual safety we accepted.

Some will find it corny, but what we’ve experienced these past weeks is good citizenship – and clear signs that Americans continue to respect experts and leaders whose views are science and evidence-based. 

Those are good signs as we now approach the shootout between the guardians of public health and the guardians of economic prosperity.  Both sides have strong arguments, so it’s time we fasten our seatbelts.

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  1. Barbara Inskeep on April 13, 2020 at 11:04 pm

    Enjoyed optimistic Bonus Years.

  2. Norman Brown on April 14, 2020 at 2:03 am

    I’ve thought the same; that the upside is, our social technology has proven to be a blessing, even in worship.