The Flip Side of Social Distancing
Close to home in the time of COVID
Can an existential threat lead to family catharsis?
We have been practicing social distancing for several weeks now. The rules are pretty clear and we are in full compliance, as far as we can tell. For a blended family of seven, ages 13-55, we'll call that a win. There are defined government guidelines, online school and work, long walks, quick trips to the grocery store, inadequate waves from the driveway when dropping off supplies to grandparents. In the beginning, we thought the days might stretch on forever, only to find that every afternoon someone catches sight of the stove and blurts out something along the lines of: "How the heck did it get to be 4 o'clock??" (It needs to be pointed out that we are luckier than many: no major job losses (yet), no friends or family infected with the virus.)
The emotional space this isolation creates has contours that are not so clearly defined. Myriad emotions vie for bandwidth: concern, gratitude, fear, love, calculation, resignation. This spectrum clocks in for regular meetings during our global pandemic.
But then, surprises. The unexpected consequences, special gifts being slowly unwrapped since the distancing commenced. The family dinner table has become a place to linger. We can share the necessary information, and then we can do more. The respect, the communication, the conversations, the questions. Rather than growing problems, we are noticing the exact opposite. Teenagers who never seemed to have political opinions have suddenly grown a set! Kids who seemed to take their grandparents for granted apparently just don't. Conversations continue long after the last crumb of whatever came out of our homestead diner that evening is consumed. Our discussions have become less about what happened at school, or at work, who said what--and more about what is going on, where we are struggling, how we are coping, the silver linings paired with difficulties. Family relationships that were more distant, sometimes more combative, have relaxed. The attitude that "we're all in this together" prevails. We talk about how other families are reacting--are they as strict as us? or less so? and how do we feel about that?
It must have been there under the surface all along, waiting for conditions to be just so. Like fungi emerging from loamy darkness, their fruiting bodies gamely pushing up through the earth, forming that beautiful, unusual, that-wasn't-there-yesterday mushroom, daring you to take a closer look. I know I already labeled it a gift, but it bears repeating: This is a gift, and it's truly one that keeps on giving.
Newton's 3rd Law of Motion states, "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."
Could it be that while we are social distancing from extended family, friends, teammates, neighbors, and colleagues, we are also proportionally converging with, indeed reclaiming, our families? When I ask, "How are you?" I care about the answer more than ever. The dog and her antics have become more entertaining, and more comforting. When my son offers to make a grocery run, I know these are uncharted waters.
I go to bed every night feeling the crisis that envelopes almost every aspect of our society. But I also fall asleep knowing that my children are safe at home. I am not worried that they are out driving around, fraternizing with unvetted acquaintances, or making questionable decisions. I will see them in the morning, and if the fact that they left lights on in the living room or dishes in the sink is the most adversarial conversation we need to have, I will take it!
I know life will go back to normal one day, or at least some semblance of normal, and my family will once again be going out to school and work, to concerts and baseball games, and to various events of which I will be only obliquely aware. While I know this will be welcome in many respects, as most humans are social creatures, I am trying to hold each moment of our self-isolation as a blessing to be appreciated and savored. Just when I began to wonder if hope was sometimes simply a game attempt at optimism, the universe provides. Sweet.