Social Distancing

Social Distancing

When my friend last called me, it was late at night and I didn’t particularly want to pick up. He’d said he would call the night before, and hadn’t until late, and I hadn’t picked up, so he called again and I figured I’d better answer. I was a little annoyed how late it was but we chatted and he was in good spirits. He was planning a trip out here, for the first time, for the first week of April, and we talked about where to eat and what we’d do. He told me he loved me, as he always did, which always made me squirm a bit, but then, we had a bond and he was like a younger brother for me.

He killed himself about a week later. That was the last time I ever talked to him, and I had no idea when I hung up and rolled back over in bed that that was that. The next time I heard tell of him, it was another friend calling, and I knew, instantly, from the word “Hello,” that someone had died. It was him.

People talk about feeling stunned, or in shock, but you never know how something so cliched became a cliche until it actually happens to you. I lost my appetite, didn’t want to eat anything — I can’t begin to tell you how out of the ordinary that is — and felt like I was walking around in a daze. Talking with his family, trying to help them understand, trying to provide any insight or advice in phone calls, my hand wrenched around the receiver, was walking through a dark gray mist. They had planned a memorial for the coming Friday - would I attend? Would I fly out?

By the time Friday had come, the world had emptied out — “acts of God,” as insurers claim. Like those massive bombs which suck the oxygen out of whole city blocks, plague had come to our shores, withering the community that had come together in grief to mourn. The memorial was postponed; the mourners were deprived even this chance to grieve together. A venue packed with hundreds of depressed, weeping people is a public health crisis in the making.

And now, in the weeks after, we’re all alone, and isolated, by government diktat. It’s entirely correct to do so, for the sake of flattening the curve and reducing this contagion’s spread, but it doesn’t change the cold reality that the most vital human need — for community — is on hold for now. Movie theaters, gyms, concerts, and most of all restaurants — my late friend was a chef — are shuttered. Everything’s going to, at best, delivery only. And now the economic contagion is taking hold, immiserating hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people. Who knows where it will end.

I have felt, for a long time now, that the shift of the American economy toward staying at home, and not even entering public, shared spaces to meet basic human needs, was ruinous. In this era of food delivery apps, streaming entertainment, and Amazon Prime, even an environ as bleak as a shopping mall seemed, by comparison, a spiritually healthy place to get out of the house to go visit. This willful atomization, which would have even groceries delivered to your home, is not how humans are designed to live. Which we’re getting an object lesson in, now.

Only in the absence of any rudimentary involvement in the daily lives of others are we feeling its importance. The most joyous, satisfying human experiences available to most Americans, even those lacking much in the way of means, are inaccessible. I can only feel that this is an acceleration of those already-existing trends, a jolt so jarring, I hope, that it makes us all reconsider what really matters.

And so my friend is dead, victim of mental illness, and a lot of other things. And the world is retreating into its boltholes. But I cannot help thinking that the same solution exists for all people who are struggling — in the words of E.M. Forster, we must “only connect.” To share what’s going on with you, with others — whether it’s as grim as thoughts of self-destruction, or as triumphant as a hunger for what life has to offer — will be our only means of survival.

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