The elephant in the non-room – the need to be with each other in the flesh

[Dear reader, I have written this piece in response to my experience of social distancing through lock down, and the bizarre effect that this form of isolation has on my being. I see this isolation from one another as a continuation and concentration of broader processes of atomization [1], and felt the need to spend time exploring that. I’m hoping to find common experience with others. If you’d like to discuss more, email me at jaydoubleyew54321@gmail.com].

[Thank you to my friend Sage for thoughtful editing of this piece. All work is always collective].

I once got to know a cat who lived on the eighth floor of a tower block and so never got to go out. She was a scattered and sketchy creature, who seemed emotionally unhinged; not surprising as she couldn’t do all the cat things that were part of her nature, like prowling around and chasing things and basking in the sunshine.

During the lockdown, I’ve at times been reminded of that cat through my own sketchiness. Granted, I get to go out for my daily fresh air, but the vast majority of my reality is within the walls of my third floor flat. I recognise that I’m extremely lucky and privileged; I remain healthy, and my partner and I extricated ourselves from a dysfunctional houseshare a couple of weeks before the lockdown, so we aren’t forced into sharing a confined space with people we’re not comfortable with. We don’t have any dependents, and currently have enough (somewhat precarious) income to meet all our basic material needs. Still, as my partner is a ‘key worker’ (delivering food), and I’m ‘working from home,’ (getting paid even though there’s not that much to do), I spend an awful lot of time on my own, and things get to feeling quite sketchy, with increasing regularity. I use the word ‘sketchy’ to encompass various states in which it’s difficult to know what to do with myself, including feeling ungrounded, unfocussed or unmotivated, and at worse times, anxious, depressed, lonely or distressed.

It’s not weird to feel weird right now – I wonder if there’s anyone who isn’t feeling profoundly affected by the pandemic, whether medically, socially, emotionally, economically, or otherwise? Maybe sketchiness is one of the better feelings you can experience – my partner and I have already encountered a couple of hair-raising close shaves with our financial situation as a result of the crisis, and the high stress made common-or-garden sketchiness seem infinitely preferable. But at the same time as everything having a baseline of weirdness, our incredible human capacity for normalising everything as much and as quickly as possible kicked in rapidly, as wherever possible, all areas of work, education, social life and entertainment, that have until now been part and parcel of public life, have overnight, and pretty much seamlessly, been shifted online.

Having to live with a debilitating global pandemic, I feel strangely thankful it’s on the right side of the millennium. Imagine if Covid-19 had come in the 1980s, when no-one had the internet. What on earth would we have done then? Or in the 1990s, with dial-up; probably better not to have internet at all than to spend all that time listening to your dial-up connection cranking away and waiting for pages to finish buffering. For the majority of us who can go online in this country, at least we get to carry on with life in some measure; we get to see our friends’ animated faces, we get to have meetings with groups of people, or do online yoga or dance – and thereby maintain some modicum of normalcy and sanity. 

At the same time, it’s good to recognize the diversity of experiences that people have in relation to the internet. For disabled people, or people living with chronic illness, the internet has, for a long time, opened up all kinds of possibilities. A lot of people I know who are disabled or chronically ill have expressed how strange it is that until the lock down, voices routinely went unheard concerning lack of access to social life when you are disabled or chronically ill, and that since the lock down, able bodied people have suddenly needed to engage in social life in a way that means that disabled/chronically ill people have access [2]

On the flipside of the coin, as so many of us have routine access to the internet, it’s easy to forget that having the internet is a privilege. If you’re someone who can’t afford an internet connection, and has until the lock down been reliant on use of the public library to access the internet to access life-sustaining welfare benefits, the closure of public space is a big hit because it makes internet usage so much more difficult to access. In another realm of experience, if you suffer from extreme electro-sensitivity, and thereby have no access either to the internet itself, or to the use of any kind of public space whatsoever due to wifi causing profound sickness, the internet becomes something utterly disabling rather than empowering, as it absolutely inhibits access to social life [3]. As such, the lock down is doubly isolating in that people can no longer visit in person, and there is no way of accessing the social aspects of being online. 

For myself, I believe my experience of the lock down would have been vastly more isolating if I didn’t have internet connection. Things are probably better than they would be without the online connection, but that doesn’t mean that my needs for social connection are being met. In many ways, I think that living my life online largely contributes to the sketchiness I feel. 

The idea is spreading that the way that social life has shifted in this pandemic will be the new normal after the lockdown has finally ended; that things are not going to go back to how they were before. Patterns that were already taking hold before the lockdown, such as working from home and moving higher education online, may well be the default way that things are done, especially as the virus is going to make it continually difficult to share public space in the same way. And we’ll forget how it was before, or that there were other ways of doing things, because it will seem so normal.

In the study of Ecology and Conservation, there is a phenomenon known as, ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ [4]. This refers to the way that over time we become accustomed to the state of the degraded natural world. This means that we take the state of the environment that we grow up with to be its natural state, and will only perceive it to be degraded if it is further damaged from the baseline that we started off with. In this way, although you may observe how the natural environment around you has become degraded, the next generation will not know any different from the degraded state that they inherit, and will understand that degraded environment to be the environment in its natural, normal state (the new baseline). In this way, across generations we stop perceiving degradation. 

This idea can be transferred to our human ecology, in which rich and diverse communities of interaction have become stripped back over time to an increasingly individualised and privatised reality. This can be observed in how my generation played out in the street with all the other kids when I was growing up, but the generation before mine played out in the woods and the fields, and the generation after mine don’t even play out in the street – they play computer games at home; but none of us have known any different from the baseline we’ve had. And in the same way, mostly we no longer know our neighbours, and people don’t observably feel particularly bad about that, whereas previous generations were very much rooted in their geographical communities.

However, I’ve noticed that if I happen to develop a good relationship with a neighbour, it can feel unexpectedly wonderful. This is an illustration of how, although we don’t know any different from the baseline of our own experience, it’s possible to not know we’re missing something important until we actually experience it. We may feel a sense of disconnection or have the sense that something’s wrong, even when we don’t know what it is, and we only start to understand what’s wrong when we come into contact with the thing we’re missing.  

I wonder if this sense of disconnection is expressed in the skyrocketing levels of depression, anxiety and loneliness experienced in our society? The book ‘The Broken Ladder’ [5] explores how rising inequality has led to a domino effect of greater isolation, which leads to greater levels of fear, which in turn leads to more selfishness, withdrawal from community life, and being less trustful of ‘the other,’ which in turn breeds more inequality, fear and isolation. After forty years of neoliberal ideology and economic policies promoting individualism, consumerism, the concentration of wealth, and the prioritisation of profit over social good [6], we are indeed suffering the profound effects of not just a widening equality gap, as well as the social dislocation caused by a population always on the move due to lack of stable jobs and housing, and increasingly concerned with security and individual concerns rather than community and societal concerns. This is the backdrop to the pandemic; in fact the social implications of the pandemic feel like an exaggerated form of neoliberalism. We already had a highly precarious workforce due to lack of regulation of the economy, a dangerously degraded health care system, and a hugely polarised society in which we are profoundly atomized from one another, with no sense of unity around a common goal such as making society more equal.

Correspondingly, the Covid crisis sees both the death toll and the unemployment rate soaring. Both of these things were avoidable, had there been a swift response to the crisis. If there was any sanity left in any of us, we’d have the common goal of demanding the end of Boris Johnson and this awful government. However, the state of our atomized society has made it easier for the government to use war-time rhetoric around the common enemy of the evil virus, helping them to evade their own accountability for dealing with the pandemic so spectacularly badly [7]. And added to that, there’s now an absolutely legitimate excuse for most of us to be contained in our little boxes and for public life to be launched online. 

I recognise that there are many ways in which people have responded to the crisis to be in solidarity with one another, in spite of the extension of isolation and atomization that the lock down causes. The 2.5 millions people who have joined their local mutual aid group, the rainbows in the windows thanking keyworkers and calling for Personal Protective Equipment for NHS staff, the crowdfunders to support migrants who have lost jobs and have no legal recourse to public funds, are all examples of this. I make reference to this because of course there is more complexity and nuance than simply saying that the atomized state we’re living in inevitably leads to fear and antagonism. 

But I want to say the following, because I want to have something to remind me in the weeks, months and years that follow: This Is Not Normal. In this lock down, we’re being forced into ongoing separation by the way that things have broken down at a very deep level. If we feel sketchy, it’s for a reason; it’s because our body is giving us messages that something’s not right and that we’ve got needs that are not being met. Sure, we can try and shift those feelings through all manner of techniques, from yoga to comfort eating, to Netflix, to positive thinking, to mindfulness practices that help us accept the crappyness of the present moment. I believe that all of those things are sticking plasters brought to us by neoliberal individualist thinking. Ultimately we are absolutely social beings, and as such we need each other in ways that we often don’t realise we’re missing, which causes all manner of emotional states that can be hard to comprehend.

The lockdown causes me to experience a sense of hyper-boundariedness and boundarylessness at the same time. There are the boundaries of staying at home and as far away from other people as possible, and then there’s the lack of boundaries in terms of the shift in understanding of where I end and the rest of the world begins. It’s physical contact, it’s sharing physical space with others, that make up my sense of self. I also need lots of personal space and time alone, but I’m not, and will never be, just an individual unit; I really only exist in relationship with social networks, community and the natural world, and when I don’t have a sense of those things and where I belong in them, I feel disconnected and experience emotional distress.

A friend of mine told me a story about a year she spent working in Madrid. She got so lonely that sometimes she’d get on the bus and ride to the end of the line, and then ride all the way back again, just to have the feeling of being around other people. Prolonged loneliness is awful for our health – it makes you age quicker, makes cancer deadlier, alzheimer’s advances faster, and the immune system weaker. It’s twice as deadly as obesity and as deadly as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day [8]

Of course, phone calls, emails, skype calls, and zoom meetings all help to mitigate loneliness in the current situation, if you’ve got access to those things. But physical touch and sharing space are absolutely primary to our wellbeing and how we navigate through the world. When we think about how we need touch, we often think about sensual touch or sexual contact, but actually all sorts of physical touch can be beneficial to us – handshakes, or pats on the back, or a light touch on the arm. Lack of touch leads to the rise of the stress hormone cortisol as well as a raised heart rate and higher blood pressure. In the long term, lack of touch also impacts the immune system and can lead to secondary immune disorders [9]

This is another aspect of how the lock down affects us all differently as some have their basic need for touch met better than others; some people are living alone and so have no physical contact at all, others are confined to sharing with a partner or housemates in an environment of hostility, others may have the physical comfort of a loving family around them. But universally our experience of touch in social settings is affected. I wonder how that will affect us long term? I wonder how it’s affecting children long term? Mainstream British culture already had a strained relationship with healthy touch. How do we maintain healthy norms around touch when something so simple is something that could also lead to serious illness and death?

In terms of meeting online, I’ve noticed there are many ways that it causes me to feel confused in ways that are difficult to articulate, but the confusion seems to be because our bodies are so used to picking up and integrating information from the sharing of physical space. This recent twitter post sums it up really well:

I spoke to an old therapist friend today, and finally understood why everyone’s so exhausted after the video calls. It’s the plausible deniability of each other’s absence. Our minds tricked into the idea of being together when our bodies feel we’re not. Dissonance is exhausting…It’s easier being in each other’s presence, or in each other’s absence, than in the constant presence of each other’s absence [10].

Meeting online is confusing because we don’t read body language in the same way and don’t have the same nonverbal cues for interaction. It’s harder to have relaxed conversations, harder to build relationships, and harder to deal with tension and conflict. It makes our interaction more laboured and two-dimensional, not to mention the distorting effects of camera problems and connection issues.

Of course we can get more used to these things and better at dealing with them. But I contend that this is just another way of forgetting what it is that we’re missing, and I feel the need to hold onto the idea that we can miss something without knowing what it is until we come into contact with it. I believe this is reflected in the way that so many people who ‘work from home’ actually spend a good proportion of their day working in a cafe. It’s not because a cafe is a naturally good environment for concentration; there’s always a whiny child or a booming voice or a poor choice of music or a noisy milk frother. Yet, in another way that’s hard to verbalize why, people find they work better when there are other people around them – just by virtue of them being there.

I have friends in academia who say that now that all teaching has gone online, it’s most likely going to stay there – the preceding crisis in the universities means that providing a cheaper version of education is a relief to stretched budgets. This describes a stripped bare educational experience, without any of the emergent creativity that happens when a bunch of people with energy and ideas are thrown together. But maybe that’s the way to prepare students for what the workplace is going to look like.

I’ve also been wondering about the ongoing effectiveness of the mutual aid groups which have sprung up since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s great that people have taken it into their hands to work on building networks of support in their local communities, to mean that it’s more possible to meet people’s needs whenever any of us is vulnerable. There is a hope that these mutual aid networks will transcend the pandemic, maybe even laying the basis for strong local community ties that will organise themselves to create structures of democratic participation around other concerns. Groups organised at the street level could send representatives to a neighbourhood level of organising, which in turn send reps to the area of a whole postcode, who in turn send reps to the city level to form decisions together about what action needs to be taken.

It would be wonderful to have such an intricate social fabric – working together in everybody’s interests to meet each other’s needs. At the same time, I haven’t heard enough acknowledgement that nobody has ever been in the situation of building a mutual aid network when there’s no possibility of sharing space with one another, and that this makes things very limited. Hopefully these mutual aid endeavours will live long and prosper. However, I feel the need to name my belief that the development of strong mutual aid networks relies on the long, slow building of relationships of trust through the sharing of space.

Saying, ‘we need to see each other in the flesh,’ may seem like the most obvious thing in the world, but I’m saying it because I’m scared that we’re already starting to forget, and I feel that our absolutely fundamental human need to share physical space with each other is starting to be become the elephant in the non-room. Our baselines shift in relation to the natural world, and they shift in relation to each other. We need a rich human ecology as much as we need a healthy and diverse natural world, but when we don’t experience that, we don’t have any idea what it means. We know that something feels wrong, but we don’t know what it is, and all that we have are neoliberal sticking plasters. And at the same time, it’s become glaringly clear that the Covid-19 crisis was handled so appallingly badly that we’re now looking at a situation where the virus could be endemic in the population. My fear is that neoliberal sticking plasters could be as good as it gets for as long as there is no vaccine, as whenever public space is opened up, the virus starts to proliferate again, forcing us into further social distancing or even back into lock down.

In my next posts I want to spend time exploring visions of a future worth orienting ourselves towards, and the means to build the collective power to do so. For now though, I want to remember that we need to share space with one another for this to happen. In an endless variety of ways that are specific to each of us as unique individuals, we need skin-to-skin contact, we need hugs and handshakes and high fives, we need to walk together and talk together and dance together and meet together and play together and sing together and play music together and share food together and create together and protest together, we need festivals and street carnivals and concerts, we need to sit out in public spaces just because other people are around, we need to talk to our neighbours and for our neighbours to talk to us, we need the collective joy that naturally occurs when a bunch of people are sharing a moment [11]. Not virtually. In real life. Remember what that’s like? Maybe that’s something worth fighting for. Maybe in fighting for a better world, we’re also fighting for the possibility of collective joy. 

[For endnotes, click on any of the numbers given in the text]

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