will the act of social distancing wreak havoc on our humanity?

Street View - Social Distancing

Prior to the coronavirus crisis, how would you feel if you were walking down the street and the person coming towards you deliberately went out of their way to avoid you? You might wonder why this person found you so repulsive. Most likely, you’d feel hurt, confused, and rejected. It most certainly wouldn’t make you feel close to that person, stranger or not, and would probably have the opposite effect.

Under this strange new world of “social distancing”, however, it is a near-universal edict to do so – to go out of your way to avoid other people as you pass them on the street. I’ve been walking around my neighborhood a lot in order to try to avoid going stir crazy, and I’ve been both the instigator and the recipient (and sometimes both) of this act as I make my way down the sidewalk. It feels bad, every time, no matter which side I’m on. I can feel the instinctive emotional tug for self-preservation that has been ignited by this pandemic, the heightened fear of others. In many ways, it feels impossible to enact this type of deliberate physical distancing without experiencing a negative feeling towards the other person; the act and the emotion seem linked, somehow.

I have a feeling I’m not alone in this. As I have become more aware of this tendency in myself over the past few days, I have been consciously trying to combat it by making eye contact with the person I’m “avoiding”, or even to say “Hello” or “Good Morning”. However, most people seem trapped in the same paradigm I described earlier; they look down, look away, and hurry past. Very few of them look at me long enough to give me the opportunity to smile and connect. This act of distancing, after all, is anti-connection.

This troubles me; in my experience, we – at least Americans – already have a problem with human connection, and especially as technology has, increasingly, enabled us to function without it. Social distancing just amplifies it; it inspires us to remove ourselves even more, to connect less. I worry for our collective humanity.

I’ve been studying a lot about bias; one of the fundamental concepts discussed in the literature is what is called the “in-group/out-group” phenomenon. It speaks to the theory that it was evolutionarily necessary for early humans to fear others in order to preserve the survival of their tribe. That tendency still lives in us – we see it in small children when they experience stranger anxiety; in adults it manifests in bias, prejudice, and outright hatred toward certain groups. However, we have evolved to curb that tendency in most daily interactions and to build a counter-balance – a feeling of trust in our neighbors and fellow humans.

So what happens if we all fall victim to our base human instincts for survival in the face of this crisis, if we give in to our irrational fears and lose sight of the fact that we are actually all in this together? What happens if we become conditioned to feeling fear every time we even see another human being approaching?

I don’t think this is a simple situation by any means. And I certainly do not mean to imply that social distancing is bad, not at all. I do believe it is a necessary measure to be taken in order to prevent the spreading of a very dangerous virus, one that can kill. But I just want people to consider this: We can push back on our fears. We can try to humanize one another, even from six feet away. We can smile, say hello, to acknowledge one another. To acknowledge that, together, we are doing our part to keep one another safe and healthy. No one will get the virus because they smile at someone else, say hello, or wave, even if it feels that way. These simple gestures may seem trivial, but maybe they are the only things we can do to preserve our humanity in this difficult time.