What Social Distancing Means for Humans

As COVID-19 spreads around the globe and the world’s governments try to keep the cases at bay, a new phrase has cropped up: social distancing. In a nutshell, it means keeping away from people to limit the spread of infection, particularly when transmitted through the air.

For many of us, this means staying at home when we’d normally be out and about – whether it be shopping, dining out, or simply going to work. Some governments have outright prohibited all non-essential travel (the definition of essential, of course, is up for debate), meaning that for many of us, the normal social contact we would have with other people is at an absolute minimum.

At first, the introvert in me would want to think of this as a good thing; who wants to have to interact with other people anyway? But as the days wear on, it becomes increasingly evident that, even for the most antisocial among us, human contact is an essential part of our nature.

You see, humans – like many, many other animals – are inherently social creatures. We thrive when we are in a community, and perish in isolation. There’s a great deal of study into the psychology of this, but the bottom line is that people need each other to stay sane.

If this is the case, then what happens when we are forced into isolation? Whilst many of us are in isolation with a few other people, there are nonetheless some of us – those who live alone – who now have no physical connection to other people for days, if not weeks, at a time. Even if you live with someone, the limited social interaction of just a couple of other people is no comparison to the wealth of stimuli that comes from being able to simply talk to different people, with different perspectives, throughout your day.

Even as a fairly hardcore introvert (I get easily exhausted interacting with people), my day is usually filled with human interaction and socialization, and I use alone time to recuperate. Now that I’m working from home, the conversations with my colleagues and clients are at a bare minimum, and I find myself at times bored to tears.

Perhaps the only good news is that this particular pandemic has hit us at a time when we’re still able to socialize to a reasonable degree remotely, through technology. In fact, for our children, who are so used to socializing virtually, I suspect this quarantine is having a significantly lesser impact that it has had on adults who grew up having to interact in person. Through FaceTime, social media and online servers, we’re able to at the very least get the input from others that create intellectual stimulus, even if we aren’t benefiting from the more visceral reactions of being able to physically see, hear, and speak to others in person.

I have regular virtual meetings for my work, as does my wife; my son is taking online classes from school through which he can directly interact with his teachers. I can call, text, or message people anytime I like. I can still interact.

But none of this replaces the need we have for physical human interaction, and I worry that society as a whole may soon face a terrible choice: do we maintain our physical health at the expense of our mental health, or do we venture out and about, risking exposure to a potentially deadly virus, just to stay sane?

There are no easy answers at a time like this, but with COVID-19 seeming unlikely to disappear anytime soon, there may be some drastic changes that will have to be made, simply in order to protect the survival of human society. And what happens when the next viral outbreak comes? What happens when a plague of considerably greater deadliness comes around? Without sounding too apocalyptical about it, humanity may have never faced a greater threat to our overall societal well-being.

What are your thoughts? How will we survive this, mentally and physically? And what do you think the long-term prospects for our culture and civilization are?

Passing the Torch of Depression

It’s incredible, to an extent, to consider that my son is fifteen.

When I started writing The Redemption of Erâth as bedtime stories for him, he was a wide-eyed seven-year-old, in love the wonder of fantasy and the magical places stories can take you. When I first published Consolation in 2014, he was ten – old enough to understand the importance of such a feat, yet young enough to whole-heartedly believe that it could be a success.

And now, five years later, he is very much an adult. Not wholly – he hasn’t entirely mastered social interactions or handling money (something he’s unlikely to learn from me) – but enough so that to hear him speak, or read his writing, you could certainly be forgiven for thinking he’s at least ten years older than he actually is. He’s socially aware, intelligent beyond books, and able to hold a political conversation with evidence to support his stance.

But there’s something else that’s happening as he gets older, and it’s as disconcerting as it might be inevitable. He’s starting to show symptoms of depression.

I might be reading too much into it – after all, teenagers frequently fall into dark moods and monosyllabic interactions – but there are many of the hallmarks of depression in his behavior and attitude, and I don’t mean from a clinical perspective.

I mean from a personal one.

At fifteen, he’s beginning to behave exactly the way I did the year depression took me away forever. He’s moody, miserable, frequently uncommunicative, and denies that anything is wrong more or less all the time. He won’t talk to me about his feelings, about his relationships or friends, and I worry that he might be falling into the great void that I did at his age.

It’s so hard to talk to him, because it isn’t ever clear if he’s really listening, or taking my words to heart. I don’t have advice; I don’t have any good suggestions. All I have is a lifetime of experience with misery and depression, and the only thing I ever wanted for him was to not descend into that same abyss.

If I could let him know anything, it would be that most important of knowledges, the one thing I never knew or felt in my own youth: he’s not alone. I wish I could help him understand that he has a companion, he has support – he has someone who intimately understands what it feels like to hate yourself, to worry compulsively over someone you love, and to wish with all your heart that things could be somehow different; that you could return to the past of youthful abandon, or fast-forward to the future where all the heartache of youth is long-spent.

He has me.

If you’re out there; if you read this; please understand that I want you to know it’s okay to feel the way you do. It’s okay to feel sad, depressed and miserable. It’s okay to despise your life and wish it was different. It’s okay to dream about escape, to hope for love and to want to avoid talking to anyone because it’s embarrassing, painful and frustrating.

It’s totally okay to be you.

And furthermore, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I haven’t been as supportive as I could have been. I’m sorry I lie in bed while you do the dishes and clean the house. I’m sorry I’m a pathetic excuse for a parent who probably seems like a cruel taskmaster, pushing my own responsibilities on you because I can’t bear them myself.

And most of all, I’m sorry to have passed you this torch of depression. I hope dearly that I’m wrong; I hope that you can find a way to grow out of it, to find happiness and joy in life. Maybe you do, and you just hate me. Hell, I don’t even care if that’s the case.

But if you are suffering in the throes of despair, please, please understand that you can talk to me. I won’t judge; I won’t discipline. I won’t even speak, if you don’t want me to. I’ll just listen, and I promise at the end of it I won’t tell you to suck it up, or that ‘that’s life’; all I can say is I’m sorry, and I know what it’s like.

Truly – I know what it’s like.

Of a Great Person

About a month ago, the world lost a soul. Not a celebrity; no one famous. One of thousands who die daily for no reason other than it was their time to go. It was no global catastrophe, no tragic demise; simply the passing of someone who lived their life simply, selflessly, and straight to the very end.

Death is oddly easy to come by, yet so far from easy for the people who knew the deceased. Funerals, wakes, memorials and services and wreaths and tombstones … all these efforts are done not for the person no longer with us, but for the people left behind. And it kind of sucks, because the last thing you want to do when you lose someone is worry about funeral arrangements and burial costs. Mounting bills and gathering family last-minute hardly fills the void left by the departed in your heart, but these processes perhaps hold some value, because they’re a painful reminder that in the dead’s absence, life goes on. The world doesn’t stop turning. Work gives you a few days off, and then it’s back to the grind.

So before I discuss what I think was important about the departed, I need to recognize my wife’s strength, resilience, competence and willfulness as she laid her father to rest. She mourned and wept, and amidst it all simply made shit happen. No one asked her to, and she didn’t need to be asked; there was little doubt as to who would bear the heaviest burden of actually giving her father the rest he deserved in the best way possible. Her family attended what she arranged.

This strength didn’t grow in a vacuum. My wife has led a difficult, troubled and at times traumatic life, but her strength grew from the person who raised her: her father. For whatever suffering she’s dealt with, her father almost certainly dealt with just as much. From a lonely childhood to war service and the mental breakdown of his wife early in their marriage, he suffered and fought for fairness and justice like no one I’ve ever known, and he did it entirely for his children – his legacy.

You see, whenever someone dies, you can’t help contemplate their importance; you can’t help but wonder what impact they left on the world, and if their life really mattered much – or at all. These are – on the surface – easy questions to answer when said deceased was known to the world at large; the world is immeasurably worse off for the loss of Robin Williams, or Chester Bennington, or [insert celebrity here], because of course these people made an impact on our psyches and left indelible impressions in our emotions. We miss what these people could have brought to the world, and reminisce about what they left behind. We feel like we know these people, and their deaths definitely leave a void behind.

But what about the residual importance of those deaths that are a little closer to home? What about when our father, or our brother – uncle, or grandparent – dies? What if they spent their life toiling in a factory making communications circuitry? What if they sacrificed any possibility of renown for the happiness of their own children? What if they were, ultimately, forgettable to all but their closest family?

I say this makes them not less important, but all the more so.

This argument, of course, comes down to how one chooses to measure the importance of a person’s life, but I think it’s fair to say that an individual’s significance can be told by the impact they made on others – the influence they had on the people who knew them. And in this argument, I believe that the true measure of influence is in its quality, not its quantity. It doesn’t matter that Robin Williams made millions of people passingly happy, whilst my father-in-law might have done so for fewer than a dozen folk in his life, because the depth of influence is immeasurably greater on the latter.

My wife’s father was quiet, humble and generally inconspicuous, and if you never had the chance to talk to him and get to know him, you would never guess the tragedy and trauma hidden behind his soft brown eyes. Many other men, I believe, would have walked away from similar circumstances given half a chance, and yet he spent years balancing a tenuous living and desperately fighting through courts to win his children back after their mother suffered a nervous breakdown early in their life. He abandoned career ambitions and sacrificed his personal life entirely to ensure that his children had the best life he could provide for them.

And that life he gave them formed the person who is now my wife. For as long as I’ve known her she’s idolized her father; looked up to him as an example of virtue and strength of character. She’s modeled her own life on many of his characteristics, and the upbringing of our son is a testament to his own work in raising her. He was her mentor, her confidant, her advisor and friend.

So in looking back on his life, does it matter that he was wounded in the Korean War saving others’ lives? Or that he build the communications systems that sent men to the moon? Does it matter that he was disowned by his Jewish family for marrying a Catholic woman? Or does it matter that, when the odds were stacked against him and the chips were down, he soldiered through to protect his children, because their own happiness was the only thing that mattered to him?

I like to think that the measure of a person’s importance is not in whether they influenced a million people or only one; it isn’t in whether a person goes down in history or is forgotten to the annals of time. It’s in the subtle influence they leave on those closest to them, and whether that influence was to their benefit or detriment. And in considering my father-in-law, the influence and legacy he left behind is in the person my wife became, and her siblings, and his grandchildren, and – perhaps one day – theirs.

And so I suggest that he was as great a person as any out there. He didn’t write books that changed the world; he didn’t leave behind a canon of film or music or scientific achievements. He left behind, quite simply, a strong, virtuous woman, who will remember him with love for the remainder of her own life. He changed her world, and I think that’s at least as important as any other.

He used to say that he just wanted to be remembered and thought of. I don’t know how he wanted to be remembered, or by whom, but I remember one thing clearly. A few years ago I had the opportunity to talk to him one-on-one, and I asked him simply what he wanted. What, I said, would make him happy?

His answer was to see his children happy. Nothing more, and nothing less. The same driving motivation to keep his children happy never wavered from the moment they were born until the moment he died.

If that isn’t a worthwhile legacy, I don’t know what is.