After almost three months into the Corona virus lockdown in Massachusetts, we are cataloguing our losses and discovering new sources of vitality. So many things that we took for granted have changed or simply disappeared. This is true of our daily routines and of the larger societal rituals that sustained us in ways we may have never even stopped to consider. We are changing the way we work, worship, use our leisure time, and relate to one another, and along the way, we are discovering what matters most.
Many of us are working from home using videoconferencing platforms like Zoom, Doxyme and Webex. What were once just funny sounding words in computer jargon have now become our principal means of connecting to one another not just across the continent but across town as well. We are all becoming experts in cyber technology or at least as much as we need to know in order to see and hear one another on the screens of our devices and when those inevitable glitches appear, we’re learning how to fix them.
In the realm of social interaction, videocalls are nothing new, but now our FaceTime and Skype conversations have become our principal ways of communicating with friends and family and not just an extra opportunity to make contact.
We last spent time with our 17-month-old granddaughter at Thanksgiving, and in the six months since, we watched her learn to walk, run, say her first words, and chase the family’s cats around the room, all through the magic of FaceTime.
We have become her screen grandparents, and she demonstrates that connection whenever she sees us by twirling her hands in time to a children’s song about the spinning wheels on the bus, just as we once taught her to do in person. We have never been more grateful for technology and never more aware of its limitations. If only screens could hug.
Far worse than the forced distance between grandparents and grandchildren is the separation that happens when people are admitted to hospitals and their loved ones are not permitted to visit. This happened to the mother of a friend who, at the age of 92, fell and broke her femur, leaving her 96-year-old husband alone for the first time in their more than 60 years of marriage.
He was well cared for by his daughter who visited daily, tending to his needs and bringing him updates about his wife’s condition, but he was still frightened and confused until his wife returned. Not everyone is so lucky, and every day the news reports stories of people who die alone in the hospital and cannot even have a proper funeral because the number of mourners is limited by the requirements of social distancing.
We have never been more aware of the pleasures of ordinary social contact or the simple routines that get us out of the house. We humans are social animals and like to spend time with one another face-to-face in all kinds of situations. Through millennia of common practice, we have come to expect the presence of others at certain times in certain places and to expect and prefer privacy in others.
We expect to see people when we mutually agree to get together for conversation, meals, and various forms of entertainment or when we go into the heart of the city where people congregate. We take long walks in the woods when we want to be alone.
Suddenly, that paradigm has been reversed. We are alone in our houses, the cities are empty, and in our once quiet neighborhoods, we are surrounded by people walking, biking, and chatting through masks as soon we step out of the front door. We may have lost our customary ways of socializing, but the drive to spend time with one another is stronger than ever.
In the catalogue of what we have lost, we can’t forget the joys of anticipation. Planning a trip or a visit to a friend, we are accustomed to savoring the preparations and looking forward to the journey, the destination, and the pleasures that await our arrival. Now, the best we can say is “someday, when this is over” without knowing when that day will come.
If the catalogue of what we have lost feels overwhelming, we would do well to remember that there is another catalogue listing all that we have found. There we will discover our enhanced capacity to adapt to change, to use social media to connect at work and in our private lives, to relish the simple pleasures of home or a drive to nowhere in particular, and to appreciate everything that people in all walks of life are doing to keep us safe and enrich our lives in these days of confinement.
We suddenly find ourselves in the company of heroes, some, like health care workers, that we have always known as such and others who go about their work unrecognized. Grocery store workers, cleaning staff, and delivery personnel all play their part to keep us safe, while educational institutions, houses of worship, and the entertainment industry find new ways to nurture our minds and spirits.
The pandemic has brought unprecedented suffering and changed everything about how we live. If that’s all it did, it would indeed be a tragedy without redemption. But if it can remind us of why we live and teach us to live more purposefully for one another, that would at least be something, quite possibly something that makes all the difference.