Love Me and Stay Away

Connecting in the time of a pandemic.

Posted Apr 19, 2020

As a child, I ducked under my desk and put my back to the schoolroom window to prevent being cut by shattered glass from an atomic blast. While such hiding would do no good against an A-bomb, the fear of such an attack was real. On the sides of many buildings at that time were orange and black signs indicated bomb shelters in the basements in case of an actual raid.

Today I’m not hiding under my desk—I actually sit by a window to look at shrubbery, sky, and birds— but I am sheltering to from an enemy that is, in fact, stalking my neighborhood. Staying indoors isn’t a drill but a rational response to an invisible enemy.

Those school day drills are a fading memory, a bit of history from the past century. Whatever fear was instilled by the reminder that nuclear annihilation could occur at any time wasn’t long-lasting. But what the future will bring, good or bad, from the coronavirus pandemic is a matter of speculation.

For some, this will be a time of great sorrow. Others will emerge barely touched. Will this be a time to re-evaluate our personal lives and make readjustments more fitting to our ethical values? Will the great inequities in society be addressed? The heroes, after all, aren’t only those on the front lines but also the cashiers at grocery stores, sanitation workers, and others who made life possible for those who remained sheltered.

The Dutch diarist Etty Hillesum, in her published diary An Interrupted Life, writes, “As life becomes harder and more threatening, it also becomes richer, because the fewer the expectations we have, the more the good things of life become unexpected gifts which we accept with gratitude.” Hillesum, a Dutch Jew, died in a Nazi concentration camp shortly after she wrote those lines, not yet 30 years old. In one of her final diary entries, she says, “I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car ... We left the camp singing.”

A cattle car full of starving people, people on the way to their deaths, singing, is an inspiring image in the midst of calamity. It illustrates that what makes life bearable is being with others, being connected. One of life’s greatest gifts is that of friendship, the love of others, being cared for, taking care of—these who are essential to what it means to be human. Without such connections, we are lonely, vulnerable and subject to exploitation.

This is why during the COVID pandemic, enforced social distancing led to new ways of connecting electronically. Phone calls soared, face-to-face chatting forums burgeoned in fantastic and unexpected ways, while others have created funny and touching videos for YouTube. Some open windows to sing to passersby, thank you signs are posted on doors and windows and other ways too numerous to mention.

Despite finding some good in the worldwide shutdown, it runs contrary to our deepest need to be in real contact with others, to hear their breathing, smell them and to literally touch and be touched.

Unlike other catastrophes, which brought people in close contact with each other—standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the streets after a natural disaster or pressed tightly in an air raid shelter—this crisis is keeping us apart. If we get too close, too quickly, the virus is likely to flare up and wreak more havoc. A calculation will have to be made at some time that will allow people to connect once again. William Schnaffer, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University and a panel member of the NCAA advisory panel said, “We’re going to have to accept some increased health risks in order to solve some of these other problems. If you don’t expect perfection, you won’t be disappointed.”

How do you balance putting the lives of some at great risk against the need for real connections — the need to be with others in a real, not virtual space? All of life entails risk-taking. But it is one thing to take the risk for myself and it is another when the risk I take endangers another.

At some point, society will have to find an acceptable balance, a tradeoff between our mental health and safety, always ready to make readjustments as circumstances change. We need one another.