A Year Into the Pandemic, I Miss Connecting With Strangers

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We live in a time when getting too close to others might literally kill us, and that simple but horrific fact has changed everything. Our ability to connect has been compromised by forced distance from one another, and it’s taking a heavy toll.

Recently I was at a local café when, without warning, a woman bolted out of line and walked over to an isolated table. After a few very shaky deep breaths, tears began spilling out of her eyes. Normally I would have walked over to her and checked in. In the age of Covid-19, I was utterly paralyzed. How can I quietly and discreetly check in with a woman who is 6 feet away?

Finally, I decided to wing it. I left the line, and as softly as I could, from six feet away, said, “I have to ask. Are you OK?”

The woman looked up, almost startled by human contact. Then, through tears, she said, “I just left my mom. She’s in her 80s. I live in California and have to fly back home today to my daughter. My mom’s pretty careful, but I’m so scared she’s going to die, and I won’t be there — I won’t be there to hold her hand.”

I paused for a moment, not sure of what to say. Then, finally, “I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I wish I could help. This just really, really sucks.”“It does. It does suck. I hate it.” She paused, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Thank you for asking. Really.”

We stood there quietly, just looking at each other, physically distanced, but unexpectedly emotionally close. It was beautiful, vulnerable, hopeful and profoundly uplifting. Despite our lack of physical proximity, our unexpected encounter was intensely honest and intimate.

Finally, she took a breath and said, “Thank you. This has meant a lot.”

Then she picked up her purse, and walked out the door.

Physical distancing during the pandemic has created painful emotional distancing.

I recently had a conversation with my friend Mike Ellis about the impact of social distancing. Mike is a therapist who has spent his career focusing on treating our most vulnerable.

“Human beings thrive on human connection. We need it. For 25 years in the mental health field, I’ve seen that connection is critical to our well-being. This includes casual everyday contact with strangers in our community, which gives us a sense of belonging.”

Mike and I live in Ithaca, NY. Our small college town has generally been below the national rate of per capita Covid cases. When it comes to mask wearing and social distancing, our little collegetown gets an “A.” Overall, this is a really good thing. But it also comes with an unquantifiable cost.

Humans have three levels of closeness and intimacy with others.

1. Inner circle

2. Casual connections

3. Total Strangers

According to Ellis, “We can still connect with those we love over zoom, but the pandemic has compromised our ability to create and nurture casual connections and to connect with strangers. This has hit our most vulnerable the hardest. Those who have less of a social network are really suffering.”

So much of how we communicate depends on how physically close we are to each other. When sharing our most intimate thoughts and feelings, physical closeness creates a sense of safety. This is why we talk quietly to people about our most intimate feelings even when no one else could overhear us.

We are not versed at connecting from six feet away. At the same time, in some ways real connection is easier now. There is far greater potential to connect quickly and authentically with strangers in ways we never could before this plague insidiously injected itself into our lives. There is an openness about human suffering, a lack of shame about feeling sad or anxious, a palpable desire to make a difference, that we just didn’t have before. There is a feeling that we are all in this together. And we are.

While we wait for Americans to receive the vaccine en masse, each one of us can make a big impact on the well being of people in our community with small but critical shifts in our behavior.

1. Say Hello

This may sound intuitively obvious, but it often seems as if we don’t know how to share a simple hello from a distance. Perhaps we fear what will come next. These days, real conversations are often not uplifting. Resist the urge to check out. Whether you’re in the line at the grocery store, or you’re walking down the street, make an effort to greet people. I’ve been doing this lately and have been repeatedly stunned by the response. People seem like they are thirsty in an emotional desert, just waiting for human connection. Say hello!

2. Throw Etiquette Out The Window

If you’re a loud Italian like me, congratulations! This is your moment! Politeness, to many, means not raising our voices. I now let what I call my “full Italian” fly! I even yell hello to folks over a half a block away. I will readily admit people are slightly shocked at first. Yet in the end, we talk, loudly, to each from six feet apart. And it’s pretty great!

3. Don’t Run From The Sad Stuff

Pre-Covid there was an expectation we lie like sociopaths all day long. Even if your beloved Aunt just died, when asked how you were doing the expected answer was, “I’m fine, how are you.” Today, there is a greater tolerance for honesty, but we can go even further, rejecting the endless hollow platitudes we use as shields. Instead, we can really ask people how they’re doing. People can tell the difference. They will feel it if we have truly committed ourselves to hearing their real and honest answer. And here’s the amazing part. After that, we don’t need to do anything heroic. As Mike put it, “You can’t fix it, but that’s not the point. Just letting another human being know you hear them, that they are seen, is so validating and sustaining. It’s critical.” My answer to the woman in the cafe, my simple, “That sucks,” wasn’t exactly artful. In that moment, however, it was enough.

We can begin to heal our broken, sick world now if we all actively fight the default of emotionally distancing. That awkward but ultimately beautiful moment I shared in that cafe is one I won’t soon forget. With a little extra effort and creativity, connection is absolutely still possible. If we don’t find ways to reach each other, we may have more than a broken economy and broken hearts from lost lives to deal with after this pandemic. One of the pillars that holds our society together may be broken as well: human connection.

[If you’d like to help, one way to do it is to donate to the organization Mike Ellis works for, Family and Children’s Service. Throughout this crisis they’ve been providing critical mental health services to folks who really need them.]

Author of A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space, available for pre-sale now and published by Berrett Koehler on May 11th, 20021. (website: elizavancort.com)

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