As someone who’s avidly and anxiously watching the growth of social polarization in America, I squirmed upon hearing that one of the prescriptions for our latest national challenge—managing the COVID-19 pandemic—is a strategy called “social distancing.”
Oh, great. What is this paradoxical term? It evoked all my concerns about trends already dividing us in the realms of politics, news coverage, digital culture, and civil discourse. Pope Francis has warned us that, in light of Catholic culture and values, we must resist today’s tendencies toward outrage, defamation and de-platforming, exclusionary silencing of contrary voices, withdrawal into artificial realities, manipulation of information, weaponization of words, labeling of people, snap judgments, and a demonizing mix of relativism and moralism—all tempting us to toxify or forsake inclusive, constructive communication.
Indeed, the pope has made many comments, in his annual World Communications Day messages and elsewhere, suggesting that social media and smartphone screens make us less social. This week, I imagined him regretting the symbolism, and possible outcomes, of physical distancing: He might say the behavior widens the chasms that erode compassionate communication, offend human dignity, and short-circuit the pursuit of common good and shared truths! He agrees with a growing array of secular opinion-leaders who say Americans need to feel comfortable talking with each other again.
My imagination went astray, I’ll admit. I discovered “social distancing”—most basically, the commonplace guidance to maintain 3-to-6 feet of space between you and another person in order to limit the spread of a virus—is scientifically sound practice. The idea is akin to quarantining, avoiding big crowds, and bumping fists instead of shaking hands. It aligns with Christian principles of charity, community solidarity, and good citizenship. Of course, the Vatican itself is implementing the strategy.
All of this has legitimized distancing, but I can’t help thinking it’s a sad sign of a bigger “dis-ease.” To the degree that the elderly and infirm may have a particular need for the love expressed in a hug or a gentle touch, to the degree that compassion and caring are well-expressed in a kiss of the beloved, to the degree that dynamic group gatherings (as well as meaningful face-to-face encounters with the marginalized) are booster shots for humanity, social distancing is like pulling the light-therapy lamp away from the SAD sufferer. These increases in “personal space” and unused time are snapshots of a contaminated community space that cries out for visits by missionary disciples.
This is a teachable moment when a future shaped by social polarization is uncloaked but the present moment allows us to see we have alternatives. We have temporarily entered a quiet place–almost literally a retreat house–in our lives: March Madness thrills are sterilized, St. Patrick’s Day offers pints but no parades, the electricity of college campuses is replaced by “distance learning” delivering lectures and tests online.
When the virus scare is past, we’ll be able to raise our eyes from the screen. We’ll step out where all of us can exchange lines in the more meaningful scenes we sense we were born to play. As Pope Francis recently said to mark World Communications Day 2020, God, the “great storyteller,” is summoning us as actors to share in, and spread, the current episodes of the timeless redemption tale. “For no one is an extra on the world stage,” the pope wrote, “and everyone’s story is open to possible change.”
Now that we’ve been distanced, it’s a good chance to become good students, learning our lines and integrating the “motivation” of our characters so we’ll be ready when the box office reopens. Here are a few ideas for optimizing the current circumstances of sluggishness and separation:
- Bridge the gaps between people with more spacious respect. In maintaining a few feet of “social distance” during everyday civic life and commerce, let’s adopt better ways of being noticed, expressing ourselves in an appealing way, communicating respectfully, and appreciating the full value of interactions. We’re not rock ’em-sock ’em robots. We’re all human beings, with unique qualities and contributions to be discerned by ourselves and others. Let’s take in the full view of every person as an end, not a means, while extra time and space provide us the chance to do so. When appropriate, remake what used to be “small talk” into larger, longer, even louder talk. Greet and depart by giving people a big wave. Smile broadly and declare, “Stay healthy!” Don’t feel like smiling? Make a (germ-free) Vulcan hand gesture, accompanied by “Live long and prosper!”
- Attend the modestly sized meetings in your community, and participate. Don’t become a home-body. Since you can’t go to a basketball game, go to a city council meeting, or become active in the club you joined as a lukewarm member two years ago. Entertain yourself and others by keeping civic life interesting. Attend and pay attention. Take note that there are a couple of top-players or interesting rookies among your club’s leadership! No celebrities or sports stars, but folks worth getting to know! Your seat has space around it, so fill it with gravitas; say constructive things as a contributor, not a spectator. Don’t leave everything up to the guy next to you; he’s not there! Make a simple joke—helpful, since the comedy club is closed!
- Make full use of your time at home with the family since mom and dad have canceled their business trips and siblings are home from college. Discuss dinner plans in advance, drawing tips from menus you’ve googled. Enjoy conversations around the table, and decide what film you’ll all watch together. Take advantage of cheaper popcorn.
- Take a social approach to the media. Among families and friends, show at least a few of the Facebook and Instagram pages you’ve followed as a solo reader. Look up the pages of people and families that everyone knows; suddenly they become more important, better understood, likely to be “liked” or “followed” by a few more people. Expand horizons by trying a few TV or YouTube channels you never watched before, perhaps ones you disagree with. Discuss those conflicts. Realize you’re shedding your confirmation bias.
- Vet your tweets and responses before you send them. Pretend you’re the President, but don’t rush into that! Ask a friend or relative how they might rephrase your latest Twitter creation. If you see a comment that enrages you, ask for input on whether the source is a jerk who’s best ignored, or perhaps a modern-day prophet who states his case clumsily! Play a game where teams compete to hone your tweet to exactly the maximum number of characters.
- Incorporate prayer and pondering. Increase the time you spend alone forming a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. First and foremost, seize the available silence so you can reflect or meditate each day. If you need to be busy, make a dent in that pile of edifying books you’ve wanted to read. Or surf the Internet, prudently, to study spiritual points that somehow didn’t make the news, or to catch up on questions of the secular world, or to research an event in historical context. Always ponder the discoveries afterward, as Mary would, with an openness to the Holy Spirit’s insights. Establish Catholic playlists of blogs or podcasts or performers who make you say, “I wish I had said that.”
- Remember to thank God for your health and to pray for all those friends and relatives who are sick or vulnerable. Then, plan to visit them, either in-person or virtually. Send grateful emails to the professionals who are caring for your loved ones. Include a link to something inspirational or fun.
Social distancing can open up a whole new spectrum of distance-learning opportunities. Your retreat from some things can create a new closeness to alternatives. You may look back with gratitude on the extra quiet and extra time brought to you by order of our health-science gurus.
After COVID-19 has disappeared, we’ll need to find the right balance between low-touch scientific wisdom and high-touch spiritual renewal. Let’s remember the habits we developed during our retreat, such as cherishing communication and conversation as acts of human intimacy and empowerment. We’ll place a higher value on news and information, despite the torrents of data pouring out of our media, if we have become better sorters and interpreters of what’s important and what’s real. We’ll place a higher value on other people if we shared the frustration of closed sports arenas but responded by preparing for encounters with open minds.
My hope for an easing of polarization and outrage may be just as exaggerated as my initial resistance to the tactic called social distancing. But, in the spirit of Catholic solidarity and Pope Francis’ messages about communication, I’m betting the cross of individual separation with which we’re battling a communicable disease today can represent a “via dolorosa” leading us to redemption tomorrow–a healing of human togetherness that we just can’t stop talking about.