I’ve been trying to wrap language around the destabilizing experience of isolation and COVID-19. Either/or narratives seem too simplistic to help me understand the complexity of this moment. Amid the horrors, I search for graces. And amid the graces, I trace the very real suffering all around us.
Human beings are wired for connection. An evolutionary trait or a reflection of divine endowment, our need for each other is key to our very survival. Think about it. Trace all of the goodness in your life. What forms does it take? Notice that it is not all self-generated. Much of the goodness and beauty in our lives is born of our connection to others—and that truth inspires gratitude.
The connection between us is magnetic. Naturally centripetal, human connection pulls us together, in the flesh. Physical distancing does not feel right, even if, ultimately, it is. We have been largely deprived of something fundamental to our nature. That need for presence expresses itself in a desire for human touch, for proximity and intimacy. The novel coronavirus, though not sentient, has exploited this need for connection.
Our typical ways of meeting that need could kill us, and so we self-isolate. If we are lucky enough to have shelter, we shelter in. We only leave home when we need something that cannot—for any number of reasons—be delivered. When we do go out, and if we are wise, we mask our faces to minimize disease transmission.
A paradox—I save you when I leave you. And you save me, not by reaching but by retreating.
Masks are ambivalent symbols whose meanings are highly context dependent. Halloween masks can be terrifying. Surgical masks are frightening for another reason but still connote safety. Masks are essential to the joyous and titillating celebration of masquerade balls. In any context, masks depersonalize us, which, in the aforementioned cases, is part of the point.
When chosen, being depersonalized can be liberating. Being shrouded in mystery can make you feel more powerful and desirable than usual. Much like keyboard courage, the anonymity of the mask emboldens and enlivens.
Yet, at least for me, COVID-19 has stripped mask-wearing of any such pleasure. In those rare occasions when I venture out to our local grocery store, I am overwhelmed by the sea of masked faces. I no longer linger as I once did in the spice aisles. I no longer chat on the phone with Mom while shopping, no longer discuss with her in the moment which meat shreds best under what conditions. I am all business, all military strategy—executing a mission with surgical precision.
There is an invisible enemy on the loose, and, at present, an offensive attack makes little sense. We defeat it by avoiding it, by depriving it of human hosts. A paradox—I save you when I leave you. And you save me, not by reaching but by retreating. And when you do not retreat, you weaponize human connection and vulnerability. You collude with this horrific plague in its mission to destroy us all. And of course no disease kills everyone; the impact is deadliest among those who were already vulnerable.
Any human interaction, without the right balances of power and care, can end in devastation. So physical connection has never in fact been neutral or without the possibility of peril. Human touch can heal even as it can harm.
Lest we think the novel coronavirus is truly novel, death and destruction haunt every human encounter. COVID-19 has merely thrown that truth into stark relief. Every social injustice, every system of oppression exploits human connection. Any human interaction, without the right balances of power and care, can end in devastation. So physical connection has never in fact been neutral or without the possibility of peril. Human touch can heal even as it can harm.
Isolation has become the primary way to demonstrate care for overselves and others. Yet, thankfully, isolation isn’t resignation. Our relationships and responsibilities, though surely impacted, still exist. As others have noted, sheltering in to flatten the curve is better termed “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing.” The human need for connection is constant and cannot in the end be suppressed. Marshall Rosenberg, the author of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, reminds us that there is more than one way to satisfy a human need. And so it is that the better resourced among us have turned to technology to meet our needs while mitigating the risk of physical proximity.
But, as we have seen, every blessing also burdens.
I have witnessed the blessing of isolation. While I wouldn’t choose it under normal circumstances, isolation has been life-saving. I have several chronic conditions that make me especially vulnerable to the consequences of COVID-19. Isolation has kept my body safe. Of course my being able to self-isolate is not only a necessity, but also a great privilege. While I grew up poor, I am now upwardly mobile and therefore fairly financially secure. My day job and side hustles don’t require me to leave home. I have consistent shelter; running, drinkable water; and nutritious foods. I have a healthy relationship with my wife and daughter. Both of them appear to be thriving. An elementary school teacher, my wife has successfully virtualized her classroom. And my daughter, Sabrina, whose ADHD typically frustrates academic learning, has adopted a routine that works for her. To my surprise, her productivity and overall health have all increased, as she shared in “Distance Learning Is Taking an Emotional Toll on Students,” a recent Teen Vogue piece that looked at how distance learning is affecting the emotional health of students. No doubt her innate resilience and our family’s resources are protective factors.
I have also witnessed isolation’s burdens. Mom had several dilation and curettage procedures by the time her doctor decided a hysterectomy needed to happen before the abnormalities could metastasize. The procedure was scheduled for this past March, and I planned to travel up from New York to Connecticut to be with Mom. However, the outbreak of COVID-19 indefinitely delayed Mom’s surgery, as the hospital braced for an influx of respiratory cases. Mom hasn’t had a period in years, yet she’s been bleeding daily for months now. While the prescribed medicines have helped, surgery feels like the only way forward.
Over the last few weeks, Mom’s condition has worsened. Upon my urging, she contacted her doctor who, seemingly alarmed, said she would secure an immediate surgery date for fear that Mom may now have cancer. Hopeful at the time, Mom has descended into a pit of worry and despair. Although she promised to follow up, the doctor hasn’t reached out to her since that last phone call. Mom’s daily, anxiety-ridden phone calls have gone unanswered. Outraged and scared, I stepped in. I shared my frustration and deep concern with the doctor’s assistant who, sufficiently chastised, had a nurse call Mom immediately after our call. I cannot help thinking that my male voice and Queen’s English pronunciation helped our cause. The ignorant often believe Mom’s Jamaican accent is a measure of her intelligence—or lack thereof. In one of our nightly calls, Mom said to me, “Jason, they do not care about me. And I just want to live”; my heart shattered into a thousand pieces.
Studies cited by the Perception Institute show that many medical professionals do not take Black women’s voices seriously. I would like to believe that had Mom’s doctor seen her face-to-face, she would have detected Mom’s distress more clearly and been more motivated to treat her. I would like to blame COVID-19 for such depersonalized forms of communication, as if that is the real problem. But I know better. COVID has exposed—and exacerbated—what was already there.
Isolation is protecting Mom from COVID, yet it is also keeping her from surgery. And that’s not the end of the story. Her mental health has suffered as well. She complains of persistent and unbearable sadness. “Jason, I am crying all the time. I don’t even tell you all that I am going through.” She often repeats stories that she has already told me, and when I say, “Oh yeah, Mom, you told me,” she says, “Oh Jason, I am so sorry. I have so much on my mind. It is going every which way.” Unable to travel or host loved ones, Mom, like so many other elders, is alone, starved of human connection. She recently told me that our daily video calls are keeping her sane.
Mom is not the only one suffering. Isolation is taking its toll in myriad ways. A friend of mine is a single mother of three children living in a studio apartment. Recently laid off, she had been on her way to starting a new job when the outbreak began. She has no income for the foreseeable future. Each day, her eldest child, still in secondary school, leaves home around noon to collect bagged lunches for the family from the neighborhood public school. Shortly after lunch, the family takes a nap because, as the eldest child tells me, “Mommy needs her rest.” My friend is depressed and distraught yet holding it together for her children. While friends are pitching in, the situation remains bleak. The stimulus check notwithstanding, a stable, living wage alludes my friend and with it the security she so desperately desires—and deserves.
The wider narrative arc is far more about the ways many of us had already self-isolated our hearts, putting severe constraints around our empathy and compassion.
Human disconnection is at the heart of each of these stories of suffering. Each story begins not with an imposed isolation from without but an imposed isolation from within. It is easy to blame COVID-19 for the suffering that we see, but that is only part of the story. The wider narrative arc is far more about the ways many of us had already self-isolated our hearts, putting severe constraints around our empathy and compassion.
We have institutionalized this self-isolation of the heart in our neglectful public policies and egregious economic practices. We have normalized exploitation and greed. We have prioritized our safety alone. We have sanctified hyper-individualism and willingly sacrificed the vulnerable. We have used their vulnerability to indict them, hurling accusations of weakness and declaring them unfit for this new age of neoliberal competition. We have failed to see that their insecurity is directly connected to our security. We have failed to think more creatively, to reject these zero-sum games.
That does not have to be the end of the story, however. Many of my favorite stories have epic twists that pivot on paradoxes—wisdom from unlikely voices, salvation from unexpected quarters. David kills Goliath. Esther saves a nation. Hunted by a fearful king, a baby born in scandal grows up to capture the hearts of many and upend the Roman empire.
Perhaps the story of our times will have a surprising twist. May our story thus read:
The moral of their times was paradoxical. While they distanced their bodies, their hearts grew closer. They withdrew from public life and took time to consider the depth of their souls and the width of their empathy. Self-isolation turned into self-reflection. Self-reflection into conviction. And conviction into connection. They took on the plight of their neighbors. Reimagined a world that truly included all. Gave up whatever privilege or power was necessary. And their circle of compassion grew wider than ever.