Will We Remain Disconnected From Eachother Long After COVID?
The answer might lie in your culture and country of residence…
I was just speaking with a friend/colleague who is from Italy. We were catching up, asking how one another had been? What were our lives like at the moment during COVID?
I remarked, along with some positive updates, that I was missing seeing loved ones in person. I was feeling disconnected and lonely.
He nodded and said “yes, it’s interesting, there is a lot of talk in the medical community of sticking with telehealth going forward, even after COVID is over. Of continuing to see patients over a screen instead of in-person. Or of still having meetings over Zoom with a colleague who is just right down the hall.”
“God,” I shook my head. “This is one of my big fears with all of this, R,” I said.
“That after COVID, since we have already been disconnected in this country for years now, that everyone will just get ‘used’ to meeting over Zoom and will stop socializing even more, and substituting screens for real-life interactions with friends even more. That would be horrible.”
He nodded, looking sad and concerned.
“Yes. I mean, J and I come here into work and sit in the same office together, with masks on, just so that we can be together in person. And in Europe, people have gone right back to socializing and doing things in person again. But people here aren’t doing that at all. I worry that they will just stay with the remote stuff permanently, even after all this is over.”
“Well, I also think in Europe, they got it under control way faster,” I said. “Whereas here, it will have gone on for well over a year, maybe more, by the time we get to that point. So maybe people here will just say they are used to going things over Zoom.”
“Yes. That scares me. If that becomes how things are,” he said, looking alarmed and disheartened.
“I want to ask people when this is all over, will you go back to meeting people in person or just do more of it online and over a screen. But I’m afraid to hear the answer,” he said, shaking his head.
“That would be devastating for relationships, for our social lives, just…for life in general. I mean, a main part of the joy in life is relationships. But not over a screen, real ones in person.”
He nodded sadly.
A sense of disconnection and loneliness has already been on the steady rise in America for years now. The famed Harvard social scientist, Robert Putnam, among others, has documented and discussed this.
American's membership and attendance have fallen in all sorts of things, from church attendance to rotary clubs and PTA. Americans socialize less with each passing year. They have friends over for dinner less than half what they used to a handful of years ago (the figure used to be that we had people over 15 times each year, on average. Now it’s less than half that).
(Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam and Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal by Ben Sasse are two of the books which track and document this disintegration of community and interpersonal connection in America. I highly recommend both).
The Wall Street Journal has written about sky-high rates of anxiety and depression in adolescent girls who use a lot of social media. Sherry Turkle in her book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age, has written about the damage it causes to our relationships when we allow screens to frequently interrupt those meaningful, important, in-person, face-to-face interactions.
According to a 2018 national survey by Cigna, loneliness levels in America had reached an all-time high that year, with nearly half of 20,000 U.S. adults reporting they sometimes or always feel alone.
Forty percent of survey participants also reported they sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they feel isolated. A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) found that more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely and nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated.
We are one lonely country.
So why on earth would we wish to duck out of meaningful, in-person social interactions even more?
Emotionally and mentally, we cannot afford to, with how disconnected and lonely we already are.
A huge, resounding aspect of what makes life joyous, meaningful, rich, and fulfilling is being with other people, and not looking at them on a flat, one-dimensional screen. That isn’t the same. We do not get the same emotional bang for our buck via digital connection as we do in the flesh. There just is no substitute for it.
Seeing people on a flat-screen does not nourish our spirits and minds even close to the way it does when we spend time with someone in person.
We need people, not screens.
We need in-person love, not digital love.
We need face-to-face conversation, not the sound of disembodied voices blaring forth from our cell phones.
We cannot let this happen following COVID (receding ever further behind our screens and away from each other), and further, why would we want it to?
Screens do not offer the messy richness that real people do. They do not offer the surprises in a given in-person social interaction that comes with awkward moments, funny things said, nor do they give us the sensation of warmth and well-being that a hug or touch on the arm does from a real, live person.
Screens do not offer the feeling of comfort and heart-filling connection that having an emotionally deep conversation does when neither person is distracted, both people are fully present, and they are feeling understood and heard by one another.
Screens do not give us a sense of empathy for each other. Instead, they present a wall of disconnect via the screen between us.
Screens offer other a carefully crafted, censored, curated view of ourselves that we present to the world. A heavily edited one, in which we can delete, word our sentences just so, airbrush, present only the best stuff, you get the idea.
This type of shallowness, this facade and mirage is not the stuff on which authentic, soul-filling, satisfying connections are built. Those must be done in-person, with all the messiness that comes with awkward moments, missteps, emotional times, complexity and confusion, etc.
Screens? They filter all of that out. And we miss out on so much when they do. We miss out on the humanity of others.
We must do everything we can to preserve, save, and protect our in-person friendships, close connections, and time with the people who matter to us. Right now during a pandemic? This means getting creative. Wear masks. Meet outside. Open all the doors and windows in your house and have fans going when you invite a couple of people over.
And once the pandemic has receded decently and been gotten under more control? Do not let fear dictate your life. Do not let what you’ve “grown used to” become the default. That’s like saying, “well, I’ve gotten used to eating crappy microwave meals after work because they are easier to make. They don’t taste that great, and they don’t really fill me up or satisfy me, but they are just easier and safer.”
Put in the effort to pursue and maintain what truly nourishes you.
And what is that?
In-person, flesh and blood, face to face interactions with people.
Forget the screens. They aren’t doing anything to make us happier over the big picture. They are doing much the opposite, even if we do not think so at the moment. It’s people and real-life relationships and interactions, it’s the in-person connection, that is where it’s at. That is what makes life truly rich and wonderful. Without it, our lives become paler, less vivid, emptier, less fun, more one-dimensional, and less meaningful.