A modest proposal: Can we stop calling the current, epidemiologically-sanctioned six-foot social distance “social?” I find it to be anything but social in the way that we know that word, unless “social” has been relegated exclusively to the adjective phrase, “socially conscious,” which a six-foot separation from other human beings indeed is in the context of protecting others and ourselves from the ravages of the coronavirus.
But “social distance” seems an almost cruel phrase in a time when all manner of sociability is, however justifiably, under siege, laid low, terrorized by a sub-microscopic virus that has ironically grown into a gigantic political football, bobbled back and forth between the left and right spheres of our political divide, both of whom are sounding decidedly anti-social notes of disdain as they watch, with mounting disapproval, the other side go about their lives.
It becomes obvious that as in all matters of life and death and risk, we must, within the bounds of any overt legal restrictions, come to our own determination about how best to navigate these uncertain, virus-laden waters that flash-flooded us mere months ago.
Such a vast, fundamentally different human landscape stretches before us these days, so far from our previous, lifelong experience of social interaction as to imagine it taking place under new rules on a distant planet, to where we have been transported as explorers or guests, unfamiliar with the mores of the native culture.
“Welcome to Planet Irony, where we encourage you, the most social of all mammals, to be social as you please, provided you stand, sit, crawl, walk, run or ride a minimum of six feet from all other human beings at all times, while wearing a mask over your mouth and nose. The only exceptions to this distance are those with whom you have lived on intimate, daily terms through the immediate past.”
The image of the Grim Reaper hovers over every touch, every potential, inadvertent exhalation of the dreaded coronavirus “droplets” that scientists have studied assiduously over these past months, working in labs the world over to measure the distances said droplets travel in various settings and conditions, how they attach to different surfaces, what their ambient temperature survivability is, how they respond to assaults by soap, by bleach, by sunshine.
So we have come to a point where the nearly universally practiced handshake, the utterly natural and needed pats on the arm, hugs, the offering of a shoulder for comfort, a hand to assist with a task, the sitting down to a meal or a drink or a game of Scrabble or a shared ice cream cone or a good cleansing cry: all strictly verboten.
And since we value our survival and want to avoid the dark specter of spending our last days on a ventilator untouched and not even permitted to be “surrounded by loved ones” as we breathe our last, we have learned all this, avidly, mentally filing it for ready, everyday recall as part of our intellectual armamentarium.
We are all epidemiologists now.
Problem is that we don’t really know enough because the virus is new and science works slowly, through laborious research that takes time and money and veritable mountains of patience from all those anxiously awaiting the latest guidance. “New York Times” columnist Nicholas Kristof noted the other day the curious phenomenon that “the nonexperts are supremely confident in their predictions, while epidemiologists keep telling me that they don’t really know much at all.”
That’s a line eerily reminiscent of the Yeats post here a couple of weeks ago: “The best lack all conviction/While the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Kristof then added, with the even-handedness he always tries to employ, how wrong “some” conservatives have been in initially dismissing Covid-19 as just another flu, while also noting that “some” liberals had predicted disaster when college president Jerry Falwell Jr. called students back to Liberty University after spring break, but the virus stayed quiet.
“Viruses are complicated,” he observed, in a line worthy of the driest California chardonnay (which you can still buy in stores, but don’t even think about heading to your favorite winery to taste one any time soon).
So if even scientists aren’t quite certain about how this virus behaves and what the relative risks of transmission and infection are, what are us common folk to do?
Storm state capitals while toting anti-tank weapons and pistols as some were doing last week, demanding that legislators open the state back up for business NOW, since the stormtroopers are so certain that whatever danger there might have been is past and further restrictions are unnecessary and destructive of their cherished freedom?
And does that hallowed word and concept include the “freedom” to infect other human beings?
Or on the other end of that spectrum, should people take pains not to separate merely six feet from other people at all times, but twenty-six or fifty-six feet, which I have many times observed them doing on trails and sidewalks, almost frantically stumbling through brush and up inclines to ensure a separation that seems not only adequately protective, but perhaps a wee bit overkill?
Surveying the sometimes loose, sometimes strict, sometimes subtle protocols we engage in to prevent possible infection, it becomes obvious that as in all matters of life and death and risk, we must, within the bounds of any overt legal restrictions, come to our own determination about how best to navigate these uncertain, virus-laden waters that flash-flooded us mere months ago. Risk assessment and management among humans is a delicate and highly individual affair, dependent partly on physical factors and partly on one’s psychological makeup.
My own sensibility in these matters starts first with the self-styled dictum, “Don’t do anything overtly stupid.” But within that corral, I try to balance the reasonable precautions advanced by experts with the acute knowledge that I won’t get any “lost” days back in this life (no one does, but age brings that realization painfully closer).
Which means that every dinner and journey and hug and performance and hike and bantering conversation and beer I am not experiencing now with my beloveds won’t really be “made up,” though with hope and luck and intention, they will return for encores at some blessed and gratifying point in the future.
Hence a striving for a reasonable balance that has allowed, when other parties feel similarly, for us to host friends on our outdoor deck for Happy Hours or an occasional meal, everyone careful to remain the asocial-social distance of six feet apart (more, usually), no touchie, all surfaces wiped beforehand, BYO only—including food & drink, plates, utensils, napkins, the whole bit. Select friends who share similar sensibilities have returned the favor.
But cheesh, does it ever feel weird, still, to say hello and especially good-bye without advancing toward them.
Our own assessment of this practice, along with social distanced walks and even a backyard pool meetup last weekend, is that the risk is so low as to be almost non-existent, while the reward is great. As large a role as Zoom and other platforms have assumed in the daily life of the contemporary world, they remain pale imitations indeed of actual, in-the-flesh conversations, from which we come away always with gladdened hearts and buoyed spirits.
Human proximity is, after all, a survival strategy honed over the eons, encoded in our very genes, just as vital to our well-being as the food and liquid that enable us to meet the day and the people we invite into it.
Of course, as alluded to above, risk factors and tolerance vary among different people, and for those for whom any risk at all may well prove catastrophic, or can’t be managed without undue anxiety, the equation changes.
What seems a wholly unnecessary annoyance to me—wearing a mask while driving alone in my car or while walking at dawn with not another human being in sight—may be another’s required comfort to venture outside at all.
“Different strokes for different folks,” went the old ’60s cliche. That has always been true among a species of such complex, individualized consciousness as ours. And it remains true today, with the added consideration, just as strongly honed over the eons, that we are in this together, and none of us will thrive our way through it alone, given that six feet apart is so often in our lives six feet too many.
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Social distancing sign by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/
Women hugging by Vonecia Carswell, New York City https://unsplash.com/@v_well
Elderly hands by Gert Stockmans https://unsplash.com/@gstockie