Social Distancing and the Instinct for Closeness

Apologies for my recent absence (though those of you who’ve been with me a while know it’s nothing new); I started back at work full-time about two weeks ago, and between evening shifts and busywork, I’ve really just wanted to come home and sleep after every day. Even my days off (like today) are typically spent dozing, so writing is simply taking something of a back seat at the moment.

That being said, being back at work has revealed some interesting things out of both observation and participation. I work in retail/technical support, which means I am mostly customer-facing and supporting people as they visit our store on a daily basis. And whilst we have reasonably strict protocols for regulating customer traffic, it isn’t working as well as I had perhaps initially hoped, for several reasons.

Masks are, of course, mandatory where I work for both employees and customers; if you don’t have one we’ll give you one, and if you refuse you aren’t getting in. But this immediately presents its own issues in a noisy, busy retail environment: it becomes really difficult to hear and understand people. And whilst we have training to help us learn to speak louder and with more clarity, soft-spoken customers do not. This means that I’m constantly fighting an instinct to lean in to better hear what my customer might be saying.

The instinct to lean in to hear isn’t the only one I battle at work, either; in a normal environment I would work side-by-side with my customers, helping them navigate their devices to troubleshoot and resolve whatever problems they might be having. Now, I have to deliberately put a significant distance between myself and my customer in order to maintain a safe working environment, which means it’s a lot harder to see what the customer might be doing, to help them learn how to do something specific, or to replicate technical issues without the customer’s involvement.

I see the same issue with my customers, too, only they typically aren’t as self-aware. They approach me, reach out hands to shake, or think that it’s perfectly okay to step up to within arm’s reach to talk (all things that, pre-COVID, were of course totally acceptable). And it’s a battle to constantly remind them, as well as myself, that in the current environment, this simply isn’t safe.

But the instinct for closeness goes beyond what I experience in my day-to-day at work. It extends to every part of human nature and interaction, which is why, I suspect, it’s so difficult to manage. As humans, we naturally want to be with other humans, to communicate, see their faces and their smiles and their frowns, and social distancing makes this incredibly difficult. We had a small, outdoor party the other weekend with just a few people over, and even then we were all struggling to remember to keep our masks on, or keep our distance. It doesn’t feel natural.

And this is clearly visible across the country, and across the world. Everyone desperately wants to go back to a way of life where we don’t have to worry about these things, and unfortunately, a lot of people are under the false belief that by acting as if everything’s normal, it somehow will be.

Things couldn’t be further from the truth. The United States, where I live, is currently one of the worst-afflicted countries in the world, and sadly I think it’s because there’s a notion in this country that one’s own personal beliefs and desires are paramount above anything – or anyone – else. From protests to acts of defiance to political figures – people in elevated positions of power and influence – outright refusing to acknowledge the dangers of not social distancing, this country is in rough shape because people cannot – or will not – overcome their instinct for social closeness.

We have to fight this instinct. We have to resist the urge to shake hands, to hug, to simply be around others, because every time we do, we are putting ourselves and everyone else in danger. And as we’ve clearly seen, it isn’t just a danger of getting the flu – there is a very real danger of death, and by all accounts an exceptionally unpleasant one.

So please, take an extra moment with every decision you make to ask yourself: do I need to do this, or do I want to? Will this action I’m about to take put me in closer contact with another human being than I need to be? And most of all, is there any chance that the person I’m about to interact with may be at risk of dying from an illness I may not even know I have?

Social distancing, and every other precaution we must take during this pandemic, is not a thing to be taken lightly. This is incredibly serious, and so far there seems to be no end in sight. Things won’t get better by themselves, and they won’t get better by pretending things are normal. And if you can’t bring yourself to care about other people, then at the very least consider your own health: is that party at the beach really worth dying for?

One out of every hundred people in the United States has already tested positive for COVID-19, and there are likely many, many more cases that go unreported. You know more than 100 people – I guarantee it. Which of those people are you willing to see die just so you can have some notion of personal freedom that isn’t even being taken away?

Please, think about these things … and do the right thing.

Fear and Denial

About a week ago I woke up with a sore throat. Nothing outrageous – what felt like a little back drip, maybe from allergies, but I felt slightly achey, too. I’d been through periods of feeling somewhat unwell already over the course of the past four months, so I didn’t wonder too much about it, although I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t cross my mind: what if it was COVID-19?

I’m not usually given to paranoia, which can at times be a strength, but the opposite can lead to denial, which is just as dangerous. For a week now, I’ve been living in denial about the possibility of having contracted COVID-19, going about my day, stuck at home, working and sleeping and all of that good stuff. But the feelings of slight unwellness didn’t go away, and this morning after my shower I thought I might be feeling slightly feverish, too.

So I made an appointment for tomorrow at a local urgent care, and … well, we’ll soon find out. But the thought processes in my head over the past week have, I think, taught me something about fear and denial.

I wouldn’t say that there’s much in this world that truly frightens me. I’m not scared to walk through a parking lot at night; I’m not scared of dying in a car crash; I don’t feel afraid of potentially threatening people most of the time. At most, I feel uneasy, perhaps afraid to act at times, but I don’t live in fear, for the most part, most of the time.

But I have to ask, of course, why I don’t live in fear. I mean, there are a lot of scary things out there in the world, and logically it makes sense – even from just a self-preservation perspective – to be afraid of them. Be afraid of alligators, be afraid of men with guns, be afraid of drunk drivers. These are real things, and they can really cause you harm. And I think the answer is that I largely deny these things entrance to my thoughts – I just don’t think about them, or consider the full extent of consequences of coming across them.

To an extent, I think this form of denial can be healthy; after all, if all of us worried all the time about all the things that can hurt us, we’d all be completely paranoid, and society would crumble. But taken to an extreme, and it can be almost as dangerous as thinking too much about things. On a personal level, my denial of the possibility of having COVID-19 could lead to a delay in treatment, which could lead to much worse complications. On a social level, it could be argued as outright irresponsible to my family and those I forcibly interact with (say, at the supermarket) to not have been tested sooner, as I walk through the world infecting all those around me (maybe).

And sometimes, we need to confront our denial the greater good of humanity. Denial is a strong coping mechanism to trauma, but it has its limitations. For example, there is a great deal of fear in the world right now around racism. Black communities fear, as they always have, that the protests and voices being raised now in the wake of George Floyd’s death will eventually be silenced, and they will continue to exist in a place where they fear for their lives because of the color of their skin.

But there are white people who are afraid, too. Afraid of the consequences. And I don’t mean in the sense that there are white people who are afraid black people will take their jobs, or steal their wives; I mean, there might be some, but no – the worse consequence of facing the racism in this country is that it is forcing people who would have otherwise lived in denial to see reality for what it is. White people who are afraid that, if they are forced to confront racism on their front lawn, it might reveal them to be racist themselves.

Think about it – the easiest way to deal with racism is to ignore it. Deny its existence; spout ‘all lives matter’ rhetoric and claim to be ‘colorblind’. Pretty much everyone, I think, is in agreement that racism is bad; but very few people are willing to admit that they might be bad themselves. Very few people have the courage to face their own racism, and to acknowledge that they are a part of the problem. But we have to – we have to, or we can’t be part of the solution.

So listen; if I can overcome my own denial about COVID-19 and accept that I need to get tested, then surely as a community, as a country, we can overcome our own denial of prejudice and racism and accept that we aren’t just part of the problem – we are the problem. And it’s a fixable one, too. It won’t be easy or quick, and will take check-ins every day to see how we’re doing in being allies to oppressed minorities. Some days we’ll do better than others. But if we can at the very least recognize our part – each one of us – in the systemic oppression of black and minority communities across the country, then perhaps things can slowly change for the better.

It’s okay to be afraid that you might have racist thoughts; it’s okay to be afraid of conflict, especially internal conflict. But the worse option is to continue living in denial.

Don’t live in fear; but don’t live in denial. There’s a happy medium.

Reading about dystopias is all fun and games, until you realize you’re living in one.

dys • to • pi • a
/dis’tōpēǝ/

noun

an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.

Definition from Oxford Languages

The Bible might arguably be the first apocalypse novel out there, but throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, dystopian stories have thrived, encouraged by the trauma inflicted on the human race through events as far back as the French Revolution, the Crimean War, and of course, World Wars One and Two. Every time our existence is threatened we tell stories of it, imaginations of what it could have been like if the ‘bad guys’ had won.

But a common thread through all the stories, from Brave New World (1932) to Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or Fahrenheit 451 (1953), is the perspective that this post-apocalyptic, totalitarian regime is nonetheless undesirable, that it should be railed against, fought tooth and nail to the last of our dying breaths, because it represents the total lack of all freedoms we have come to enjoy and expect in our civilization.

We enjoy these sorts of novels – and later, of course, films – because they present a thrilling view into a terrible society from a safe place. At worst, they offer a few hours of escapism from our otherwise mundane lives; at best, they offer insight into why we believe in freedom and justice, and why we should continue to prevail against what we perceive to be evil.

Did George Orwell not predict omnipresent CCTV?

Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

The realms of the disaster novel, the dystopian future, and the post-apocalypse, are of course more then idle entertainment. The very best of those authors carefully analyze visible trends in today’s existing society and extrapolate where they might lead if left unchecked. And in many of those cases, the spirit of the prediction, if not the letter, has come eerily true. Everything from CCTV and media propaganda to a distaste for all things intellectual and scientific was at some point predicted by some of the best science fiction authors the world has ever put forth.

And yet, for decades, we’ve relegated these stories to the file of ‘interesting, but couldn’t really happen’, simply because we like to believe that the real world is more grounded, that society’s checks and balances would kick in to prevent such a disastrous outcome. We like to feel that our privileged lives can’t be touched by the ugly realities that we’ve been warned about for over a century now. And we forget; we forget the true injustices of great wars and holocausts and genocides, because they didn’t happen to us.

So what happens when one day you wake up, and realize that the world you thought you believed in, the one in which you were safe from persecution, is gone? Worse yet, what happens when you come to the realization that for many, it never existed at all?

An imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice.

Let’s focus on this first part of the definition of the word ‘dystopia’. We don’t need to imagine such a state; our society, here in the United States, exhibits tremendous suffering and injustice. It has for centuries, was founded on the blood of indigenous people who were savagely conquered, and then built by the slaves who were ripped from their home and severed from all nationality, culture and family they ever knew. And despite movements to give these people equal rights dating back as far as the American Civil War, we continue to live in a world that judges men and women all the harsher for the color of their skin.

How blind is justice, really?

Photo by JJ Jordan on Pexels.com

The worst type of society is not one in which discrimination is legal and supported; it’s one in which it’s professed to be abolished, and yet allowed to persist. It’s not one in which black people must sit at the back of the bus; it’s one in which they’re silently judged if they don’t. It’s not one in which a black person knows they’ll be treated worse by police; it’s one in which they fear it.

There is great suffering and injustice in this country, and the world over. The society we live in – the one I grew up in – is run by white men standing on the shoulders of black workers. The worst of it is that when President Obama was elected, people began to feel hope that a change was coming; people began to wonder – could a black person really make a difference to the world? And when his terms were over, the white supremacists retaliated, hard. They made damn sure to elect someone who could undo all the progress made in eight years, to find someone who would speak their language: the language of oppression.

And this brings me to the second part of the definition of a dystopia:

Typically [a society] that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.

For those of you who decry, “but we live in a democracy!”, I challenge you to look around you at your government’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests that are sweeping the nation. Let’s define totalitarian for a moment:

To • tal • i • tar • i • an
/tōˌtaləˈterēən/

adjective

relating to a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state.

Definition from Oxford Languages

Let’s break this down. The United States government is heavily centralized, to the end that Washington is the be-all and end-all of the government itself. Representatives are elected from their states, of course, but all paths eventually lead to DC. It is exceptionally difficult to get a law passed in one state that is considered unlawful in others (look at the effort to legalize marijuana as an example), and federal law triumphs over all local and state laws.

And if you think the United States isn’t an elected dictatorship … a dictatorship is really nothing more than a form of government “characterized by a single leader or group of leaders with little or no toleration for political pluralism or independent programs or media”. Let’s think about the United States for a moment in this context: we have a single leader who has definitively demonstrated his lack of tolerance for any kind of political pluralism and independent media. From phrases such as “fake news” to the glorious “Fox isn’t working for us anymore!“, the president of the United States has never appeared more dictatorial.

And he requires – demands – complete subservience. Look at the violence instigated by the George Floyd protests, in which unarmed protestors have been viciously attacked by heavily militarized police, beaten, bruised and bloodied and left in the streets. Ask yourself, is a government in which police brutality is not only tolerated but outright taught not a totalitarian regime?

And finally, we are undoubtedly post-apocalyptic. From entire continents burning to deadly viruses and violence in the streets, one could be forgiven for thinking the end of the world is definitely upon us. And whilst practically speaking, of course, the world will keep on spinning with or without the human race, perhaps the end of the world is closer than we think – in a different sort of way.

And this is the only place that I feel I can draw any sort of hope. Perhaps the end of the world isn’t the end of all humanity, but rather the end of inhumanity. Perhaps … just perhaps the slew of apocalyptical events that have decimated 2020 can lead to a change, something that could bring people together, allow space for listening, allow for justice, a space where people stop rejecting science and embracing ignorance.

It’s hard to see, especially when you’re in the midst of it. But the very worst thing that could happen to the world, and to this country right now, is for us to simply pretend it isn’t happening, and that our lives can continue unaffected. For some, that may well be true – the wealthy and privileged, naturally, are the exempt in any good dystopian story – but for the rest of us, we need resist the status quo with every ounce of our strength.

Otherwise, to quote an otherwise questionable movie: “So this is how liberty dies … with thunderous applause.”