Amidst the uncertainty of recent days as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, a deeper sense of disorientation has emerged as well. None of us have experienced something of this nature and scale, yet it has unmistakably felt different than we might have anticipated. The normalcy of our work, habits, diets, institutions and economy have rapidly eroded, and this will only increase in the coming weeks and months. Still, the restlessness runs deeper than this.
During a recent conversation with a friend, I was finally able to articulate what has felt especially disorienting: now, when we feel their need the most, we cannot turn to the very anchors that ground us as social creatures.
A few months ago, if you had asked me what a healthy response to a global crisis looked like, I would have envisioned rooted, communal imagery: friends gathered around a table sharing a meal, large crowds congregated in solidarity, public times of prayer and worship. Social bonds woven tighter through gathered friends and family.
Suddenly, this kind of shared experience is viewed with suspicion. Our very instincts as social beings seem weaponized against us. The proximity of another person represents possible infectious transmission; crowded spaces are amplified conduits for viral spreading. Now that we cannot have what has always supplied us with strength and stability, we feel its aching absence.
A danger lurks in the necessity of drawing apart from each other for a time: that we might, in so doing, sever ourselves in more lasting ways. Still, the prudence of social distancing as a response to this crisis is not up for debate. Until a viable vaccine is developed, it is the only thing that can effectively slow the spread of the virus and help lighten the load on our healthcare system. By creating social distance, we are caring for each other. We are left then with the challenge of communicating our shared humanity in ways that turn our increasing isolation toward a good end.
As I survey this rapidly shifting social landscape, I feel a collective yearning for landmarks of love. Singular, visible points of convergence uniting the scattering pieces of our human affections, monuments on the horizon amidst the confused shifting of the earth. Seen from afar, and felt in the heart. We cannot inhabit the same spaces for a season, but already I see these landmarks drawing us into a common experience, even from a distance.
They may manifest themselves in literal and figurative ways, serving as physical signposts within the world, as well as symbolic points of reference. Perhaps there is no better example than the beautiful music that has spilled into quarantined Italian streets from windows and balconies in recent days. We can echo this kind of resilience and joy in our own communities, in creative and authentic ways. Our habitual means of sharing affection are becoming increasingly untenable. These coming months offer to us new ways of displaying love for our neighbor, and receiving theirs in kind.
There is an unmistakable sense that history is watching as we navigate this cultural moment. Generations that follow after us – who may face similar or worse trials – will rely on the wisdom and the markers we leave behind for them. In this turbulent time, I find comfort in the thought that we may emerge from this period of social distancing with new landmarks orienting our common affection, remnants of an isolated season rendered all the more useful in our ordinary life together. This, I pray, will impart a health to our communities that may last for generations to come.