It was inevitable: the scent of hand sanitizer always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love
On Monday, the State of California issued an ordinance requiring six counties in the Bay Area to enforce “shelter in place”, a set of policies requiring all residents to stay at home, with an exception for those providing essential and pre-approved services. This has since been extended to the entire state. This is in an attempt to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 outbreak here in the United States. While the future is unknown, it will be there waiting for us. There will be life after COVID-19, but it could be completely different than the past and present we’ve come to know.
“Today the world is united. For the first time in history, we have all of humanity united against a common foe. That’s amazing.”
—- Nell Watson, Futurist & Tech Ethicist, How to stay healthy during COVID-19 with Nell Watson
Imagine this: a united humanity, against a foe that isn’t one of our own. Just a few years ago, as part of the Noon Project, we were trying to make the case for a humanity united, but it seemed like a far away dream. Co-existence was a distant, but (and we believed it was ) a very necessary goal. Our challenge as humans, is that it is very difficult to overcome the resistance to elevating another person’s struggle as equal to our own. Such an approach is considered too radical by most. We never imagined that there could be a situation where we could collectively empathize with every living person on the planet. We have an opportunity right now, to show up for each other and for our future on this planet, in a very radical way.
When unfortunate events happen which they often do, how we respond is our choice. A wise man once told me: the pessimist sees hopelessness but the optimist sees opportunity and solutions. What if this is not just a nice concept, but one of our more viable solutions. Will we see this as our opportunity to feel and experience what we’ve suspected all along: that we are more similar than different? This illness has spared no “kind of person”. The groups we identify with are not necessarily keeping us safe, and suddenly we are all on equal ground, biologically, at least. However resources and access to care continue to forge a disparity among us, but the validity of these disparities seem like fiction in this moment in time.
And according to Watson, we are approaching our finest hour. But along the way, there will be a cost. There will be damage: to human life, to existing systems and power structures. And even while we endure this difficult period, we must deny ourselves much of our most cherished needs: social and physical interactions.
Social distancing is a polite term for “stay the fuck away from me”. And in many parts of the country, that is the exact sentiment felt. In many cities, it is considered a misdemeanor crime to violate the 6-feet apart law. And the intention is for our safety and survival, there’s no question. However, what impact is this physical separation from each other going to have on our mental health during this already stressful time. While I don’t think body contact will become permanently taboo, not even the most powerful religions have been able to keep humans from touching each other, and the coronavirus will be no different. However our health includes our mental, spiritual, and emotional health, and connection is a huge part of that. So how do we stay connected during this time of social separation? How do we practice and grow our love muscles?
This will be two parts. Part II, will contain some practical tips for my fellow shelterees. But for now, I’d like to explore some of the challenges to connection that are emerging in the infant days of our response to this pandemic.
For those who have partners, this is a perfect time to slow things down on the social calendar. If you’re among this cohort, you can finally have that Battlestar Galactica marathon weekend you’ve always fantasized about but always felt too guilty to actually do, because you saw that episode of Portlandia. This is a perfect time for pair-bonding and love-making. But maybe there’s such a thing as too much support within too little space? From issues of paranoia, to feeling suffocated, the robustness of love will be tested and tried in the weeks ahead.
But for many others, the search for that someone is a very important part of one’s love life. And for an indefinite period of time, that search must be on pause. At least in the traditional sense. Dating websites are giving guidance that if in-person meetings must happen, avoid touching and stay 6-feet away from each other.
And what about sex? For those singles or couples who normally hit the bars on a Friday night looking for a fine-ol-time. If they too decide to follow the letter of the law, wouldn’t this be a time to take a break from bodily urges? And maybe for some that is the case. But for many others, could this be a moment to explore more creative ways to hook-up? I’m not even talking about using digital communication tools or a crazy amount of sexting. Maybe within the same physical space, six feet apart, new kinky dances can emerge and inspire. Maybe we’ll discover new erogenous zones if we’re more than an arm’s length from our partners, even without the need for astral projection.
Physical vs. social distancing…
Physical distancing need not mean social distancing
—- Nell Watson, Futurist & Tech Ethicist, How to stay healthy during COVID-19 with Nell Watson
On Tuesday morning, the sun rose on a new version of Oakland, CA. It was the first day of “shelter in place” We were encouraged to take breaks and exercise, provided we are maintaining distance with others. I had wanted to go for a run but I feared what was waiting for me outside my doors. A few worst case scenarios played out in my mind, from people running away from me, screaming in fear, to being arrested for jogging five feet past someone, instead of six. I decided to face the unknown and just keep my head down and just fucking run!
After a few spontaneous nods and smiles between me and a jogger, and then me and an ambulance driver, I decided to see if this was going to be a trend today. The next jogger that passed by, I waved at her, and she smiled so big, I thought her teeth would fall out. And luckily, dental offices remain open.
Then I did the same with the next jogger, the next passer-by, and then the next one. This went on until my run was over. I must have greeted close to 50 people that morning. It can be intimidating to put yourself out there with a stranger, at least it is for me. Painful times give us the freedom to try new things. They free us, the same way certain pain from exercise opens up our movement. While physically, I am separated in a very artificial way, but every smile connected me deeply to each person I passed by.
There was a sense of belonging and camaraderie that I’d never experienced on any of the several hundred trips I’ve made around Lake Merritt. There was an acknowledgment of each other as fellow humans, part of the same tribe, respecting each other for getting out there on the pavement that morning.
The irony is that the truth about our connection to each other, is no different today than it was in the days before we knew what a coronavirus was. And we will likely return to taking one another for granted. But for a sliver of time, we are given a glimpse to our potential, and the true nature of our relationship to one another
Being at a distance physically, does not mean we must be disconnected from one another. We can create opportunities here to stay connected, or dare I say be even more connected, in spite of some of these new and temporary social hurdles. This is a quality vs quantity situation.
Stigma and Courage
This is the second self-isolation I’ve experienced, where I found myself again watching The Motorcycle Diaries (be warned before clicking: Paul Kist from 2005 was a whole different animal.) This movie is great company when the outside world is just out of reach. The adventures of Chè and Fuser, through vast landscapes, close calls, beautiful strangers, chases, love affairs, and some serious bouts with illness, all within a vast and ancient continent. Would you want to spend your pandemic days anywhere else? I’m taken with Ernesto’s compassion for the residents of the leper colony in the San Pablo forests of Peru. Leprosy and those who are infected have been stigmatized for maybe longer than recorded history. The need for safety and survival has created a strata of people who are often shamed by protocol and disconnection. Ernesto Guevara, a medical student at the time who specialized in leprosy, was drawn to visit this place and the man who administered it.
On the approach to the community, Ernesto is offered a pair of gloves to protect his hands, and Ernesto politely refuses. He intends to cross that social and even health barrier, that separates them. Maybe it was Ernesto’s knowledge of leprosy transmission that reassured his safety, or maybe something else was at play. What grows in him is an intense love for the people he meets from Ushuaia to Quiaca. We are reminded of Che’s most famous quote:
At the risk of sounding ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.
Love is what drew Ernesto to connect with the people in the colony in a radical way: gloves off, skin-to-skin. He gave to them what he gave to everyone else he met on his journey: dignity, intimacy, respect. What greater expression of love is there, than these three precious sought-after nouns.
What’s love got to do with it?
There’s a lot of fear out there. We fear those who are coughing, we fear those who aren’t. Many of us are consumed and have no solace. It may be comforting to some to know that we are programmed this way. We are hardwired to survive, and fear is a mechanism keeps us safe. But there comes a point when fear outweighs its purpose and becomes crippling. Whether it is the fear of the virus or fear of the potential economic and political fallout of this crisis.
So how do we combat that which cripples so many of us? The antidote to fear is LOVE. And I know this might sound cliche but hear me out. Sometimes the antidote is reason and logic, but tell this to the many intelligent and informed people who fear what is deemed “irrational.” But there’s something about love that neutralizes our fears, rendering them powerless. But I dare say, radical love is the only way to build a future worth having. And I don’t mean just the good feelings of love, while they most certainly will inspire and motivate, but I also mean the active love that comes with doing. Our ability to thrive in the future depends on it, and how we treat each other will determine if we are going to emerge from this better than where we’ve been. Yes we must be responsible and cautious. We should listen to the experts on the subject and follow their guidelines. As was true during the Ebola Hackathon, still it holds today: this kind of irreverent boldness is necessary in times of crisis.
Sure, we may be able to survive without love, but do we want to imagine such a future? One where few of us survived at the expense of others? A different model is possible, one where we can let mutual care and respect drive our response. This can spur us to take only what we need at a grocery store, to have empathy for someone who is socially distancing out of fear, to be kind when distancing from others, to give yourself plenty of room to not handle this all perfectly and to prioritize taking care of yourself, to be patient with those in your life making decisions around this that you don’t agree with, to go shopping for an elderly neighbor, and most importantly to don a fuzzy costume, and learn a sexy dance to arouse your partner over Zoom. It won’t be a silver bullet but maybe it can move the needle towards creating purpose in what may be some very bitter days ahead.
I write these words with great humility, where in the moment I am in good health, and have my basic needs met. Many others out there are suffering in this crisis. Either physically and mentally. Let us be there for those who may need us most during this time. And most importantly, let us be there for ourselves so we can be our best, our healthiest, and strongest for ourselves and our loved ones.
The next post will be some practical ways we can start exercising these love muscles in the age of pandemic and social distancing. Stay tuned.