Balancing Act: Human interactions have been slowly phasing out for years. So why does it hurt so much when coronavirus robs us of them?
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Balancing Act: Human interactions have been slowly phasing out for years. So why does it hurt so much when coronavirus robs us of them?

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Depressed Hispanic Girl With Sad Emotions And Feelings

The good and bad of isolationism.

We could be forgiven for believing, prior to recent days, that we don’t need each other all that much.

That we had slipped, almost by accident, into a transactional society where face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder interactions with our fellow humans were unbearably slow and wildly inefficient and frankly, a little unpleasant.

We can purchase groceries and birthday gifts and clothing and novels with our phones and we can have them delivered by a mystery human while we’re not even home to say thank you.

We venture, when we must, to stores, but we can check ourselves out, thank you very much, unless we’re buying produce and the scanner gets confused and then we cringe when a human has to come help us.

We forgo movie theaters in favor of Netflix and high school reunions in favor of Facebook and out loud, in-person, eye contact conversations in favor of texts.

And it seems OK, mostly. It works, mostly. Loneliness rates are on a precipitous rise and we’re choking on outrage most of the time and I do worry that robots and/or those Amazon Go stores where you just grab things and literally walk out the door will take over most of the jobs I was hoping my kids might one day apply for.

But we’ve seemed, on balance, to be going with it. We’ve appeared, in large numbers, to have gotten on board with the slow phasing out of human interactions.

And then coronavirus hit.

And panic, understandably, set in. We are worried about whether we will live or die and whether our loved ones will live or die and whether that living and dying will take place under chaotic, not-seen-in-our-lifetime conditions because our health care system will be overloaded and our economy will collapse.

But we are also worried about losing our human interactions. The ones we appeared, as recently as last week, to be phasing out.

It feels tremendously painful for college students to think about abruptly leaving their friends and professors and roommates and classmates.

It’s a shock to our systems to no longer have, for the foreseeable future, a book signing or basketball game or theater production or music festival or prayer service to experience with a crowd of people who will laugh and cheer and sing and worship and cry, maybe, alongside you.

It’s a lonely decision to socially distance — grandchildren from grandparents, instructors from students, neighbors from neighbors — even if it’s a prudent one.

It’s refreshing, in a way, to realize how much of our health and sanity and joy are derived from our human connections.

It’s also a little terrifying. Because those connections are also what make us vulnerable — to a virus, but also to longing and pain.

“A couple of clients have been talking about the support so many of us are going to need if the virus, closings and cancellations follow course,” family therapist John Duffy, my friend and podcast partner, told me Thursday when I asked him how the day had gone. “We were talking about impending grief, for any lives that have been or will be lost. But also of all of the expected ritual, ceremony, vacations and such that will shift the expected course of life for so many people.”

He talked about a high school varsity basketball team that was suited up and then turned away that evening from what would have been its last game of the season.

“They were lined up crying in the parking lot,” he said. “It’s one, relatively small, example. But it got me thinking about so many lasts that will, or may, be missed: dances, graduations, exams, internships.”

I also spoke Thursday with Adriana Torres, manager of volunteer services for Fox Valley Hands of Hope, a nonprofit that offers support and counseling services. Many of her volunteers go into nursing homes and hospice care facilities for weekly visits with the residents. But heightened safety restrictions mean volunteers won’t be allowed to visit patients at least through the end of March, Torres learned.

“Our patients are already so isolated,” Torres told me. “Their worlds get smaller and smaller because they’re not able to go out anymore and they don’t get as much family interaction or friend interaction as they used to.”

Her volunteers bring flowers. Some play the guitar for patients. Some read to them from the Bible.

“We tell our volunteers to wake the patients up if they’re sleeping,” Torres said, “otherwise some of them miss their only visitor for the whole week.”

She said the volunteers are distraught at the idea of their patients having no one to visit them, no one to read to them, no one to hold their hands. Some of the volunteers will write letters, she said, but it won’t be quite the same.

“A number of patients are no longer able to talk,” Torres said. “They have alzheimer’s or dementia. But they always feel the touch. They actually smile when they feel it. They need the actual contact.”

What could be more true. What could be more elemental. What could be, honestly, more beautiful.

Let’s hold on to that. Now. Tomorrow. A month from now. A year from now.

“They need the actual contact.” Don’t we all. And when it’s safe and healthy and responsible to stop socially distancing, when it’s OK to socially gather and socially engage and socially share moments big and small, let’s cherish and cultivate that part of our humanity.

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