On Social Distancing and Loneliness

“It follows that the good of a rational being must be fellowship with others; for it has long been proved that we were born for fellowship.”

  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.16

Fears abound that the current coronavirus pandemic will spawn a second, equally insidious epidemic of loneliness as we all lock down and practice social distancing to slow the rapid spread of the virus across the country and in our communities. Indeed, public health experts raised alarms about what they saw as the deeply harmful individual health consequences of increasing loneliness in the United States and other industrial democracies well before the coronavirus outbreak. Once social distancing became the main defense against the virus, a number of voices raised concern about the loneliness this necessary practice would inflict on an already isolated society.

I can only speak for myself, but I can’t say I’ve felt particularly lonely in the week and a half or so I’ve been practicing social distancing. We shouldn’t discount or downplay the feelings of loneliness this measure may prompt in others, and I know from personal experience how difficult social isolation can be. Human beings are social creatures, and so it’s hard to be physically disconnected from others. Phone calls, text conversations, and Zoom sessions can’t make up for face-to-face interactions or physical contact. Nonetheless, they’re still a form of human connection and shouldn’t be given short shrift – especially now. 

Above all, though, it’s vital to remember that we’re distancing ourselves out of concern for one another. For my own part, I feel more grateful for my relationships and more aware of their importance in my life as a result of the solitude imposed by social distancing. That can be meaningful consolation when we feel alone as a result of our voluntary isolation from others, and it’s a way of thinking about our predicament that’s worth exploring further.

We can start with some philosophical building blocks, most notably the ancient Stoic ideas that all things are interwoven and that we should always act in ways that contribute to the common good. The philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius expressed these concepts a number of times in his private philosophical journal, known to us today as the Meditations.  He took pains to remind himself, for instance, that “a human being is formed by nature to benefit others, and, when he has performed some benevolent action or accomplished anything else that contributes to the common good, he has done what he was constituted for, and has what is properly his.” (9.42)

Likewise, Marcus conveyed the interconnectedness of human society in simple analogy: “What brings no benefit to the hive brings none to the bee.” (6.54) In other words, individuals only benefit when society does well and vice versa. These two ideas connect with a third concept that also originates with the Stoics: the “the view from above.” Marcus regularly practiced this philosophical exercise, which involves pulling back from our immediate concerns to remember that we live for a short while on a tiny speck amidst a vast ocean of stars and galaxies. The retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly put forward a version of the view from above in his recent how-to piece on how he coped with social isolation during his year-long stint on the International Space Station:

Seen from space, the Earth has no borders. The spread of the coronavirus is showing us that what we share is much more powerful than what keeps us apart, for better or for worse. All people are inescapably interconnected, and the more we can come together to solve our problems, the better off we will all be.

These philosophical tools can prove invaluable in combatting the loneliness all of us will undoubtedly feel at some point during our practice of social distancing. We should think about why we’re engaging in social distancing first place – and it’s not because of the coronavirus itself or even the incompetence of political leaders at home and abroad in handling this public health crisis. Rather, we’re isolating ourselves for the sake of our friends and family, acquaintances and co-workers, fellow citizens and strangers around the world. We’re doing so in order to slow the spread of this terrible pandemic, reduce its scope, and save lives of the people we care about and those we may never meet. 

Also consider how lonely we could be even before we began to engage in social distancing. Remember how worried many of our public health officials and experts were about a loneliness epidemic even before the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Recall how isolated we can feel as parts of crowds, and how anonymous we can feel in larger groups.

Contemplate as well that we all need intimacy and deep connections with other human beings, regardless of whether we’re distancing ourselves from others as the result of a pandemic or we’re going about our normal lives as we would have just several weeks ago. Give thought to how we can achieve intimacy at a distance, whether with friends and family or even people past and present we’ll only know through writing or music. It may not be the kind of intimacy we want and ultimately need, but it can tide us through as we isolate ourselves for the common good. Focus on how disconnected we could be from others under normal circumstances, and think about how often we took our relationships for granted. 

Reflect, moreover, on how doctors, nurses, and others on the frontlines of the pandemic are performing their own duties heroically at great risk to their own lives. Think of those among us who will be stricken with the virus itself, as well as those working and exposing themselves to it in order to keep the rest of us supplied with food, drink, and medicine. In such a serious state of affairs, social distancing is the least the rest of of us can do to help.

Finally, let this consolation serve as preparation to practice social distancing for the duration. We must not delude ourselves into believing that we can resume normal life by Easter, and we should recognize that we’ll likely be called on to do our part much longer than we’d prefer.  Social distancing can leave us either isolated and lonely – or it can make us grateful for the connections and relationships we do have, especially now as we work to maintain them while keeping our distance from one another for the sake of the common good.

Ultimately, we can all make a difference in the campaign against the coronavirus if we do our part – and we may find that we come away from this crisis with a renewed sense of gratitude for the relationships with the people we care about, the knowledge that we can endure much more than we previously imagined, and a heightened appreciation for the common good of our fellow men and women.

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