Imagine being a sociologist and wanting to conduct a mass experiment on the impact of isolation and loneliness on community health.
Imagine that you wanted to shut down the whole system of normal human interaction- jobs, churches, synagogues, schools, colleges, clubs, gyms, bars and strictly confine people to their homes. Not for a day or a week but a year. If there was to be any human face to face interaction, it had to be with most of the face covered. Some essential outlets like food and liquor are permitted but only on a limited basis. The experiment would be strictly enforced.
To counteract the powerful natural social instinct, you add to the experiment the penalty that mixing could spread a deadly disease. You would also disorientate people by having authorities repeatedly send out confusing and contradictory messages about what is safe and what is allowed. You make it sound as real as possible by creating headlines of mounting death tolls and overwhelmed hospitals and mobile morgues parked outside for the cadaver overflow. You have the President act as if he knew nothing or that there was nothing to worry about, and then have him get sick and offer to drink Clorox live on TV.
The other proviso is that people can still use the phone or other communication technologies so long as they are disembodied and virtual. Whatever the tool, each must have a Mute All button so humans can self-isolate or other-isolate if desired. Any other sort of human ingenuity is allowed so long as one does not degrade the point of the experiment which is to assess the lasting affect of loss, the profound loss of normal human contact.
Lastly, the project guidelines say that it can only end when enough people decide that it has ended, which is when enough people see through the experiment. The researchers want to study the residual behaviors that outlast the experiment and to see how quick people adjust to a false reality and what part of the prior reality they reclaim. They expect that some will get so used to the new regime that they will collect Gucci designer masks as the epitome of style.
First up, if you were the funder or the expert panel reading this proposal, you would say that it is outrageous, that it could never happen, and there could be no justification for disrupting so many lives. Sorry Professor. Try it with mice maybe.
Then in 2020 comes Wuhan, and COVID19 and reality decides to stage the experiment anyway, on a global scale, only of course this was no experiment. The morgues were real, as was the pain and the loss. We humans have had to live isolated and deal with an enforced solitude for almost two years. So how did that experiment go? What did we reveal about ourselves?
First of all, people have mostly decided that the experiment is over. They want back to normal, even if it is not back to safe. The authorities have yet to adjust and they continue to lead with prevarication. Doctor Fauci is having a Two Step dance named after him called “Yes It’s Over- No Not Yet” Some late adapters are still wearing masks and living intimately apart in spaces of 6 feet. Hand Sanitizer is the new must-have accessory.
But the rest of us, most of us- this was no experiment- this was hell. There was nothing to learn here, and if there was, it was not worth the pain. All we know is that it Sucked! We want our lives back, our friends back, our normal social pursuits back. To hell with some grand social laboratory that we were forced into becoming. A judge says Masks are out, and there is mass national unmasking, on planes and trains and Malls. Take it off. Face Reveal parties compete with Gender Reveals. Is that what you looked like? I forgot. How do I look?
We are determined to recover the normal that we lost. At school, we will test and test to see how far behind our students fell, and knowing that, be able to sprint them to catch up.
But friends, have you noticed? Work does not want you back in the office. Or three days but no, we don’t have to rent that downtown building if you have proven you can work just as well from home, and in fact, productivity in some areas is up. Professionals who have set up home offices don’t miss paying exorbitant child care costs, and if they can work and parent from the same place, what is not to like? The Board got used to your toddler crawling across the screen when you presented the annual report.
As for all the reported gloom and mental health decline, everyone, I mean everyone, even Grandpa, especially Grandpa, have learned to ZOOM, so that even with social distance, loneliness does not have to be the end of the story. The Tyranny of distance can be overthrown. Isolation does not have to mean No-contact. Isn’t that a revelation? Isn’t that a revolution?
You might be one of the essential workers who decided that not getting paid enough to take the risk of getting sick y0urself was just too much, thank you. You migrated to a different career. What was there to lose? Giant or Whole Foods loss is poetry’s or plumbing or pottery’s gain.
If the normal you are striving to get back to feels like that old normal of old, can I suggest you have not being paying attention. That normal does not exist anymore. The grand experiment called COVID took place, and we were the lab rats for it. Perhaps lab rats don’t read the research findings on them, but someone out there surely is. And if we don’t know what emerged from the mess, then we risk wasting all the pain and it will happen again. Why would we suffer such an experiment at such huge costs of life, love and labor and not want to learn all we can from it?
What is this new normal and how can we get over the COVID blues? That is why I wrote the book “Our Stories Rise Up.” Like many events in our lives, I am daring to predict that over time, what we experienced as tragedy and loss will one day be the time we will look back on as the best in our lives. “Remember the time when we did not have to go to school?” “Remember the time when we did not have to go to work?” Remember the time when we were stuck at home as a family and got used to playing those stupid card games?” “Remember when I was on ZOOM and dressed the top half in shirt and tie and stood up to get the cat and they saw everything?”
Oh those were the days, my friends.