Seated with friends around a big table, sharing food, laughter, conversation. From the outside, a scenario that appears entirely normal. But now there are visible signs of change: this physical distance thing and safe dining etiquette and masks on-off and pandemic talk. But still it pretty much looks like it used to.
On the inside, for me at least, things have radically shifted. And from what I sense, social awkwardness is sharply rising for us all. If you’ve been in the company of others and felt a queasy anxiety, maybe an alarming lack of tolerance, an unusual degree of hyper-vigilance, an adolescent oversensitivity…well, you’re not alone. Social interplay is a complicated human skill. In the course of even a short conversation we make multiple under-the-radar decisions based on language interpretation—both body and verbal language. And we are getting rusty.
Maybe you’re lucky and not completely isolated. You have a partner or a bubble or you’re an essential worker. But we benefit more than we know from casual interactions: banter at the coffee shop, exchanges at the market, greeting the postman. In our understandable quest to stay healthy, we’re developing social skill atrophy. Not to mention the ways we’re routinely imprinting generalized fear around contact with other humans.
We are neurologically wired to crave company and human touch. It’s a biological survival thing. We were never meant to do this alone. So we’re trying. We reach out with our tech devices—Zoom or FaceTime—but we miss the whole body view and its barrel of meaningful social clues. And these masks…I have new appreciation for the expressive genius of the bottom half of the face. And texting. Grateful for this convenient communication magic. But even pre-pandemic, it felt like wishful thinking, so far removed from real time, real heart-body presence.
Loneliness is confusing and threatening to our nervous systems. The isolation we are all experiencing manifests in ways we don’t even nail as loneliness. Our response to this prolonged solitary confinement can come out sideways—irritability, melancholy, inertia, fury. If we were hungry or thirsty we would do something about it. But most of us are simply not getting the full range of human interaction we need for optimal health. What to do?
I’m grateful to live with a good and understanding partner. I thought after fifty years our relationship had weathered every possible storm. But this has challenged us in ways we’ve never experienced. Leaning in to only one person does not work for me. I try to insure some form of nourishing communication with someone other than this partner daily. I take a squirt of WD-40 whenever wherever I can get it. Masked eye connect and muffled hellos with strangers. Luxurious phone chats with girlfriends. Funny or poignant text threads with my children. Zoom contact with dance and yoga students. Unfortunately I find social media minimally satisfying. And then there are those vibrant physical health boosts from face-to-face human connection. The contrast with the tech-connect is stunningly obvious.
If you have found Zoom classes unsatisfying in comparison to the real deal, I’m with you. But it’s all we have right now and personally, I can feel the health benefit that is not just a product of the physical practice. I feel so connected to those of you showing up. With you I am learning how to harvest whatever is possible out of this beast. And I am buoyed by every single session, even the ones with moments awkward or impossible or fraught. Because I can feel how we are in it together and my nervous system thanks me each time. I’ll be Zooming four times this week and I’m reaching out to you here for the sheer health of it.
Nobody knows what the future holds. But there is a ton of research about prisoners in solitary confinement, soldiers on long deployments, scientists isolated on remote expeditions, astronauts circling for months in space. All the findings indicate that re-entry, whatever that might mean here, will be unpredictable at best. Return and adjustment following social isolation is universally problematic. Isolation is one way our lives are in the process of being upended. There are so many. We are all changing in fundamental ways.
In this holding zone period, in this nether world, we might prepare for the day we finally begin to gather. With ourselves, with those we have the fortune to interact with on a regular basis: patient steadfastness, expansive curiosity, maybe the deepest well of kindness you have ever cultivated. We need it now. We’ll need it tomorrow. We’ll need it for a long time coming.
Practicing right here: my fingers on this keyboard reaching across the ethers to yours. Can you feel it? Love, Bella