Distance Makes the Smart Live Longer

The power of connection through physical distancing.

Posted Apr 21, 2020

Are you getting into conflicts with your friends and family over fears about the coronavirus and social distancing?  Here’s a lesson I learned from my mountain climbing adventures.  In my twenties, I graduated from four mountaineering schools, climbed over twenty-five smaller peaks, and learned mountaineering medicine from my doctor, pastor, and life-long mentor, Loren Siffring. He also taught me recently that physical distancing — not social distancing — is the best approach to resolving these conflicts. I agree. Here's why.

The Viral Mountain Metaphor

In the early summer, two climbing buddies and I set out to scale Alaska’s Denali – 20,320 feet (Strubler, Harvard Business Review, 2011).  We knew the dangers and prepared for them. On warm days, thundering avalanches crashed down to the Kahiltna glacier every few minutes. Crevasses, hundreds of feet-deep, hid in the wet snow under our feet. Obeying our training rules, we attached a long rope between us so that if one comrade plummeted into the crevasse, the others could save him or her.  We also kept our distance (about 50 feet) so that there would be enough time and space for the other two climbers to dig in with our ice axes.  In this way, all of us would survive. And we stayed in the middle of the glacier to avoid avalanches because we understood that physical distance makes the 'smart' live longer.

 Photo with permission by Larry Buskirk
Crevasse near 14,000 feet on Denali
Source: Photo with permission by Larry Buskirk

Perhaps most of you will never climb mountains but here's the point: there are inherent dangers in the world every day and everywhere, including viruses.  All of us are now in 'training' to reduce the risks of a viral avalanche that affects us, our families, friends, and society.  Climbing (or living) in fear is not a healthy choice. It just causes anxiety. Being trained in the best that science offers, we respect and accept the dangers, taking reasonable measures to protect others and ourselves.  And we walk in faith, trusting that we have prepared as well as we can.  We acknowledge that someone greater than ourselves controls the natural phenomena of this world.

Those of us who have been mountaineering instructors (and leaders) have a responsibility to both train, and yes, expose our students to those dangers.  Instructors hike with the students through the mountains, teaching principles, behaviors, and attitudes of both safe and adventurous mountaineering. Once we set the safety guidelines, we allow our students to practice what they have learned. 

Do We Agree with Our Leaders about Distancing?

What do we make of our government leaders’ guidelines? There is a great debate (even among family and friends) about whether federal and state restrictions are overreaching or reasonable.  For me personally, I respect both the law and science that tells us that the virus is dangerous. And I also accept the science that says human connectedness is the primary positive variable associated with short and long-term mental and physical health. In fact, social integration and significant relationships are such powerful health forces, that they trump exercise, diet, smoking, and drinking cessation (Pinker, 2017). If you want to live better and longer, both connectedness and distancing are necessary. Both/and, not either/or.

What Can You Do?

Try this. Be creatively compliant. For example, in some states, you may be able to 'legally' drive or walk to a park with a loved one with whom you reside.  For non-residers, it is wise to keep your safe distance (6-12 feet) to avoid touching or receiving the airborne virus.  Makes sense.  You may be able to set up your lawn chairs at a park, spacing them 6-12 feet apart and enjoy your conversation. You will also dramatically reduce the chance of infection if you all wear masks.  If you are a walker, walk and talk at a recommended distance. Besides fresh air and vitamin D sunshine, Stanford researchers have found that walking in nature may reduce depression (Jordan, 2015). Increasing regular, frequent social connections by phone, text, and video conferencing are healthy ways of communicating and distancing that actually reduce uncertainty (Weick, 1979).  So why not be both creative and compliant?

The importance of ‘physical distancing’ compels us to be respectful of other’s concerns, i.e., to be relational, wise, and safe, while not caving into fear.  Do take the initiative to reach out to teens, 20-somethings and those over sixty who live alone or who have become socially isolated due to single household status, anxiety, or depression.  Know that fight-or-flight anxiety can turn off the immune system, making them and us more susceptible to disease (Dhabhar, F., 2009).  Developing the habits of both connectedness and safe physical distancing are the antidotes to illness, anxiety, and depression (Steger & Kasdan, 2009). 

Let’s respect one another's wishes about distance. We need to care and not scare.  We are each other's psychological lifelines, more than ever. Instill confidence by making the lifeline just a little longer and stay even more connected.  For such a time as this, it doesn’t get any better.

References

Weick, K.E. (1979, 2nd Ed).  The Social Psychology of Organizing. McGraw Hill: New York.

Dhabhar, F. (July 13, 2009). A hassle a day may keep the pathogens away: The fight-or-flight stress response and the augmentation of immune function. Integrative and Comparative Biology 49(3): 215-236.https://academic.oup.com/icb/article/49/3/215/675013

Jordan, R. (2015). https://news.stanford.edu/2015/06/30/hiking-mental-health-063015/

Pinker, S. (2017). https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_pinker_the_secret_to_living_longer_may_be_your_social_life?language=en

Steger, M.F. & Kasdan, T.B. (April 2009).  Depression and everyday social activity, belonging, and well-being. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 56(2): 289-300.

Strubler, D.C. (2011).  Failure chronicles.  Harvard Business Review Publishing. https://hbsp.harvard.edu/product/R1104J-PDF-ENG?Ntt=&itemFindingMethod=Recommendation&recommendedBy=4320-PDF-ENG