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The Pandemic Social Challenge

Fostering connection amidst social distancing

Anna Akbari
Source: Anna Akbari

I remember reading Alone Together, Sherry Turkle’s (depressing) account of how technology is wreaking havoc on our lives, back in 2011. In it, she argues that we confuse digital communication with “authentic” communication, and, like the other prescient technology analysts Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, Turkle ponders what we gain and what we lose via all this tech.

None of them, however, thought to add “....during a pandemic” to that question. Had they, their analysis might look very different.

Now, here we are, “together alone” — instead of just ALONE — thanks to our devices. Everyone is having fewer in-person interactions, and If you live alone or are quarantined with your children, you may be clinging to your tech tools even more than usual, your digital life jacket keeping your mental sanity afloat.

As someone who regularly writes and speaks about the value of disconnecting from your screens and physically tuning into the people and world around you, it’s an interesting moment to ponder how the technology so many of us have warned against may actually enhance our health and well-being during this crisis.

We know connection matters as much as exercise and diet when it comes to well-being, but it’s worth noting that it also boosts our immune systems. So if socialization is central to health, how are we to stay healthy when social distancing is not just the stuff of screen-addicts, but a nationwide mandate?

The critiques of our devices are valid. They’re deliberately designed to hook us, they diminish the depth of intimacy, disrupt our ability to focus, keep us awake, suppress empathy, and many, many other less-than-desirable outcomes. However, as we’re all currently reminded, they also keep us close during times of forced isolation.

Just imagine an alternative reality, had this pandemic hit just 25 years ago. Limited internet, no cell phones, no social media, no video chat, no streaming services, no e-books. Just you, your landline telephone, television, and whatever reading material you happen to have in your house. I often long for a return to those days, but in this moment, I’m incredibly grateful for technology.

So while you don’t need me to tell you to wash your hands or stop hoarding paper products, you might appreciate a meditation on how to maximize this time spent together alone.

Here’s your pandemic social challenge:

  1. Call someone every day. This might be an elderly relative, a neighbor, or a single friend. Or maybe it’s someone with pre-existing health issues who could use a morale boost. Try to think of which individuals in your network might not have a supportive or physically-present social network right now. You could text or email them, but for you overachievers, I recommend picking up the phone and calling or initiating a FaceTime session. Just remind yourself you are boosting both of your immune systems, not only during that interaction, but via the lingering feelings of warmth and closeness it leaves. Perhaps even agree to reconnect regularly at set intervals, giving them something to look forward to.
  2. Join (or start) a virtual group. Many social groups are finding creative ways of staying connected to members during this time — and some are even rethinking their models moving forward. My Australian meditation group, for instance, usually meets in person, making it impossible for me to join their weekly gatherings. But thanks to the pandemic, they are moving the meetings to Zoom, and it seems likely they’ll continue to offer virtual sessions after life (hopefully) returns to normal. My professional networking group is also shifting to video sessions with the understanding that keeping our connections and clients top of mind during this financially stressful time is crucial. And as I’ve mentioned before, I read and discuss books with far-flung friends, creating a consistent virtual outlet for the thoughtful exchange of ideas. Whatever you’re currently missing from your in-person life, see what possibilities might present themselves in the virtual world and join or create a regular “gathering.”
  3. Initiate deliberate family time. Being stuffed in a house (or tiny apartment, as the case may be for urban dwellers) with a significant other and stir-crazy children is more of a recipe for hardship than harmony. But when’s the last time you had so much distraction-free time together? Instead of haphazardly co-existing, set aside a particular time each day — maybe it’s dinner or later in the evenings — to do an activity together, or (better yet) TALK TO EACH OTHER. You know, like face-to-face, screen-free impromptu conversations. Maybe you reminisce or tell stories, maybe you watch a documentary or listen to an audiobook together and discuss afterward. It’s also a great time to pull out some board games or invest in a wireless Bluetooth karaoke microphone and have some domestic jam sessions. (OK, maybe that one’s not for everyone — but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: karaoke heals the world!) Whatever you decide, change it up daily, sometimes with technology, sometimes without it, but the bottom line is, even if technology is involved, you’re engaged in it together. And for those of you who live alone, consider doing the same thing via video chat with relatives or friends who double as family. Deliberate, ritualized connection makes the disruptions and uncertainty more manageable, creating opportunities for deeper connection, laughter, and joy even in isolation.

Obviously this is not an exhaustive list, but in between Netflix marathons and endless social media scrolling, I hope you’ll consider boosting your immune system with some of these mindful interactions. As a bonus, it may reshape your relationships and how you spend your time once the quarantine ends. In the meantime, I’m going to hug my technology (and will look forward to eventually reverting to lamenting its existence).

Wishing you all an abundance of physically distanced connectivity.

What am I missing? What methods, habits, and practices have you employed to boost connectivity during social distancing? How are they reshaping your relationships? Tell me in the comments!

Consider forwarding this article to a friend or relative you’d like to stay connected to during this time. Who knows what creative solutions and meaningful connections may transpire?