Social Distance: Emotional Challenges Still With Us Today
A Personal Perspective: The complex emotions involved in keeping distance.
Posted April 7, 2023 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- Beginning in the early months of 2020, the pandemic posed emotional challenges that are with us still today.
- It is important to acknowledge the complex emotions raised by social distancing.
“Hi,” a friend called out warmly to me as I walked down the street with my guide dog.
Then she stepped back as I neared her.
I felt a chill. Why was she withdrawing from me?
This was closer to the beginning of the pandemic when I was not yet fully aware of the necessity for keeping a distance not only from strangers but also from friends.
“My mom. I have to be careful,” she said explaining her reluctance.
I knew she often visited her mother, who was in her nineties. Of course, she had to be careful, I thought, I would want her to be protective. At the same time, I felt, as I stood a distance away, that sense of coldness. We used to sit close together on the couch in her living room while our dogs played at our feet, but no longer.
A few days later, when I was speaking with my sister on the phone, she told me that when her youngest daughter came to visit with her 2-year-old granddaughter, they did not come into the house. They walked around it to play in the backyard. My sister stood at the window and waved to them, avoiding possible exposure to the virus.
“I wanted to pick my granddaughter up and hug her,” my sister said. “But I couldn’t.”
“You have to worry about your husband getting the virus too,” I said. “Men are more vulnerable. Their immune systems are not as strong as ours.”
I thought about how I immediately became concerned about protecting my sister’s husband, just as on the street my friend had thought of protecting her mother. I viewed my sister and myself as not the ones most in need of safeguarding. I thought my sister was strong, her husband more likely to be vulnerable; and that I was strong, my partner Hannah more likely to be stricken and die if one of us was to get the virus.
As I told Hannah about my sister’s experience, I thought of the people who died in nursing homes and whose friends and relatives were not let in to see them. I shuddered. It was awful, I felt.
“We have to stay out of nursing homes,” I said to Hannah, feeling I was making a decision that would hold for the rest of our lives.
I have often wondered why it bothered me so much that day on the street when my friend stepped back from me. “I shouldn’t have felt that way,” I say to myself, she was just being protective. But I did feel a sadness that was similar to how I felt later when talking with my sister. I don’t think it’s a matter of principle for me—a sense that people should not withdraw from each other because it leads to further withdrawal. It hardens us. It cultivates a fear of each other. Often it does. But I don’t think I was objecting to the practice of social distancing on principle. I was reacting to it viscerally. It hurt.
I think it hurt me because all my life, I have struggled to be close to people without feeling they will fear me or draw away, without feeling there is something wrong with me. My friend taking her distance from me was stirring that up. When I was growing up, my mother was afraid of the needs of her first child, so I became afraid of my own needs, often feeling there was something wrong or dangerous about me. When my friend took a distance from me, it prompted my feelings of being a child and feeling withdrawn from and rejected, treated as if I were a threat. I have felt jolts of that same feeling ever since when people step away because of the virus, although I have become increasingly aware of the necessity for distancing as I have come to understand better the facts of contagion.
And over time, I have reacted just the opposite as I did initially. I have become more distancing toward others than they often are toward me, shuddering when someone gets too close. I swear at other people under my breath when they walk too near me on the street. “Give me distance,” I want to call out to them as my guide dog Fresco and I stride by. “Can’t you see I’m blind? I’m being led by a guide dog. He’s not trained to take a big swath around you. Let us have our space.” I often feel like telling them that, but instead, I say it to the wind as we pass them. It’s somehow okay for me to want the distance, I guess, but not for other people to take it from me.
Yet, when I do step back, as I did recently when a gardener came into our yard to prune our trees and stood too close to me, it is with regret. I stepped away, all the while feeling, “I don’t want to be hurting his feelings.”
“It’s okay with me,” he said, motioning that it was okay for him if I was close.
“But it shouldn’t be okay,” I thought. “Maybe men want to feel impervious in the face of the virus, but I don’t. I know I need to step back.”
A while later, as he and I stood looking up at tree limbs, Hannah waved at me from across our yard. “Back,” she motioned. “Step back. You’re too close!”
I waved back to her, murmuring to myself, “Don’t tell me what to do, I know. I’m not in danger.” Yet I knew she was right. And I also knew I had felt, for that moment when I stood too close to the man, “It’s okay. We’re outside. It’s just this once.” But I stepped back, hurting him if necessary. He was there to cut tree limbs with sharp tools, thinking about how to do it without damaging the trees. I was thinking about how to back away from him without damaging our connection.
When I reflect on my experiences of social distancing, my feelings become somber. They make me sad. They recall hurts of my own. I wonder if other people, too, feel a sense of loss and sadness when having to step back from others with whom they wish to be close.