Monday 4th May 2020 @ 11:41 am
Lots of comment and question these days around ‘what are we learning’ through coronavirus. A major thing for me from the start has been the value of (and danger of not having) social connection. The prominence of positive social connection is well documented in the field of positive psychology. It sits alongside kindness, and living with a sense of purpose, as absolutely key indicators for living a happy life. “Once you understand the importance of social connection for happiness and well–being I think there are lots of ways in which you can think about ways in your own life that you can connect with people more effectively and in deeper ways” (Prof Nick Epley Author, positive psychologist)
I knew things were going to be different and difficult, when a middle–aged women (older than me I hasten to quickly add) huffed and puffed as I moved around a corner too close to her in my local Tescos. This was before the measures we see now had been put in place with queues outside and floor demarcations inside. I heard a very gruff 2 METERS! I checked myself a little, I had been distracted, did a double take and looked at her. She repeated, more loudly 2METERS! I did not give a gracious reaction, I just looked at her with a little unbelief and walked off. Was I a quicker thinker I would have stopped, sincerely apologized, and quite correctly said, ‘You are so right, am I am so sorry, indeed I do not want to risk getting a disease from you. Thank you so much!”
For all my worry about positive connection and the psychology of living in a society where suspicion of everyone and everything becomes dominant, and where avoidance is the standard operating procedure, I should have done better at being gracious. Oh well.
Scapegoating, pre–judging, seeing malevolence in all humans surrounding you is a real and present danger to the cohesion of our society as we look to pick up and carry on over the coming weeks. We were already in danger. Political dialogue, social interaction and common courtesy have all sunk to depths not seen before in my life–time. Much of this can be seen as a psychological fear of being contaminated by the ‘other.’ (see Richard Beck’s book ‘Unclean’ to read just how deep this psychology runs in society). ‘Those who think / look / talk / act different to what I consider normal become a threat to my way of life’ – this has become a central tenet of our western world. To add fear of an actual virus that really can contaminate you and those you love with devastating real–life consequences only exacerbates the vulnerability to progressive cohesion within our societies. Jonathan Sacks writes in his new book, ‘Morality,’
“?I have argued that the loss of shared moral community means that we find it difficult to reason together. Truth gives way to power. Uncomfortable views are excluded from campuses. To win support, people start defining themselves as victims. Public shaming takes the place of judicial establishment of guilt. Civility – especially respect for people who oppose you – begins to die. The public conversation slowly gives way to a shouting match in which integrity counts for little and noise for much. This is not a culture whose survival can be taken for granted. It is one that is fraying at the seams.”
We need honest conversations. We need better connection. Social distancing is helping to save thousands of lives – it is vital, it is draconian, it is working. All these angles on it hold to be true. And it might also damage the workings of society in the long run unless we talk about how social distancing must not come to mean we live socially distant from each other.
The psychologists, the biologists, the neuro–scientists, the social workers, the health–care workers, the preachers teachers and pastors all know how vital to life & health social connection is. We have been struggling for quite some time with what it means to hold healthy social connections of respect, dignity, forgiveness, hope and fun in the enlightened West. Please God inspire us to be better together.
A couple of weeks ago I was back in Tescos. At the checkout counter I was chatting with the checkout lady about the new realities everyone was living under. We talked about the social distancing measures in the shop and about the different feel of the place. I laughed a little and told her about the woman a few weeks before who had wanted to kill me for coming too close to her in the store (yes, the story had grown in magnitude by that time). The checkout woman smiled back and said, “Yes, it’s tough isn’t it.” And while I was briefly feeling vindicated and superior, she continued, “You just don’t know what she’s facing sure you don’t? She could have people at home she’s really worried about. You just don’t know what she’s going through. Must be tough on her.” And she smiled at me.
Ahhh crap. Yes. Yes indeed. My conscience got slapped about by the checkout lady. She was absolutely right, and she showed a lot more social connection than I did. In doing so, she bid me do better.
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