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Erin Clabough Ph.D.

Why Some People Refuse to Practice Social Distancing

Acting compassionately by doing nothing is actually incredibly hard work.

In the past month, a bit of invasive viral RNA has crafted the entire world’s behavior and kept us tethered to our houses. A global call for inaction for the greater good is unprecedented in our lifetimes.

The instructions are simple: There is a pandemic. Stay home. But staying at home turns out to be an impressive act of collective compassion and collective strength. This is a stretch for many.

For some, the enemy is still invisible, as not all areas have been affected by COVID-19 yet. It is a tsunami reported many miles away. For others, the effects of social distancing feel like a tidal wave within a family, even in the absence of personal sickness. Staying 6 feet apart is inconvenient, but adherence, or lack thereof, to social distancing guidelines is making partners fight and splitting houses.

The people who refuse to fully socially distance are not heartless people—in fact, they are often the doers among us, the people who normally rush in to help and now feel crippled by instructions to do nothing in the face of tragedy. They keep doing what they were doing in the hope of normalcy. They don’t want to be told what to do.

Source: Pixabay
Conscientious objectors put all at risk.
Source: Pixabay

But I’m speaking directly to the social-distance-conscientious objectors when I say that your choice to not adhere is dangerous to us all. Normalcy is gone. Your thinking must shift to realize that staying put is heroic-level empathy. This is active empathy, even though it feels incredibly passive.

I swear it’s still empathy even if you feel nothing. Nature has two ways to make us do the right thing: Your feelings make you behave in a certain way, but you can also get there by thinking through it. If you feel nothing but frustration and annoyance at social distancing and do it anyway, this is still empathy.

You can be empathetic without a single drop of emotion, and it still counts. In fact, cognitive empathy should feel inauthentic by its very nature. Remember, you aren’t doing what you feel is the best thing to do. You are doing what someone else thinks is the best thing to do, even though it makes no sense to you.

We’re not that great at empathy, actually. Empathy is dropping in our society, maybe more than you know. As a culture, we didn’t teach it, we didn’t really model it, we never had time for it, but right now, we are both learning and teaching each other empathy on a massive scale. Empathy is a skill enhanced by practice in both kids and adults. And now, we’re practicing it every minute of every day in full view of our kids, sometimes by government mandate, while fully closeted from the rest of our support network.

Remember to be kind to yourself and be kind to others as they struggle with this. Realize that social distancing in this way takes an incredible amount of self-control, and it is hard psychological work. Empathy and self-control can be exhausting. It takes a massive amount of creativity to not only constantly imagine that we are infected with an invisible pathogen when we go out for groceries, but also to live wholly different lives at home, coping with a reinvented workday and our little ones simultaneously.

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Children need support during social distancing.
Source: Pixabay

The instructions we give to our kids are also simple. When we practice social distancing as low-risk families, we are sending the message to our kids: Sometimes, we do things for others . As high-risk families, we are telling our kids: Sometimes, strangers do things for us .

For parents helping your kids through this uncertain time, remember that it is important to model good behavior, to let kids have an emotional outlet, to keep their spirits up with positive self-talk, and to openly discuss the reasons that we have to socially distance. Feed them snacks to keep their energy up, because when you ask them to exercise this kind of self-control, you’re asking them to do something hard! Give younger kids concrete reminders about what they have to do, and allow older children to self- or group-monitor behavior to make them feel more in control of the situation. These things all improve self-control for kids and will work for grownups too.

This will not be two to three weeks of self-isolation, at which point we can break free again, and life will return to normal. Instead, in reality, we will be in this position for quite some time. There may be several cycles of distancing. We will be practicing these things—this empathy, self-control, and creativity—in the most human ways possible for months. We will grow tired.

Source: Pixabay
Practicing social distance.
Source: Pixabay

The good news is that when you practice something, it becomes stronger, no matter the motivation. If you are forced to practice the piano daily, you will still get better, whether it was your idea to sit down on the piano bench or not. We are built to learn—our brains are always learning, always developing, as we strengthen synapses in response to the neural pathways that we use. This pandemic crash course in caring is simply forced empathy practice. And it will work.

Humans in this world have been asked to connect our personal fabrics together to weave a giant rescue net for society. It’s more than putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. From a 6-foot distance, we’ve been asked to tell people we’ve never met: “Hey, I’ve got your back.” In the hardest way imaginable, this coronavirus is teaching us the skill we needed the most: empathy.

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