Why Social Distancing Feel Wrong

Social connection by close physical proximity is familiar to me and, on the whole, I am very comfortable with people being physically close to me. I’ll seek people out and spend time in their presence. Being physically with people, however, is neither a guarantee of nor the only way to have meaningful human connection, of course.

In these times of physical distancing and experienced isolation, I crave social connection. Sometimes it feels like an inverse relationship – the more physically distant I become, the more efforts I will put into social connection. I’ll find alternative compensatory ways of being with people – reading, watching, Zooming, listening are all getting extra me-and-you-time. It’s great to have found more connection with people I would not usually have spent time with and to have discovered unusual things about friends I know well, things that may have remained dormant to me had it not been for physical distancing.

We are essentially social creatures and our wellbeing is so often fuelled by social connection, doing the ‘right thing’ by people, caring and being cared for, being humane. Restrictions on this fuel supply threaten our wellbeing. When social connection feels squeezed, choked even, an obvious thing to do it to try to bolster connection, to find fulfilment in doing things with and for others. Video exercise champion Joe Wicks says he has never felt so fulfilled and expects nothing ever to live up to the meaningful sense of purpose he has found now (Desert Island Discs (2020) Radio 4, 14 June). A friend of mine is working night and day to develop and maintain internet connections for isolated individuals who see this as a lifeline, just as significant as having a roof over their heads and water on tap.

I also know that sometimes I struggle with being sociable and don’t know what to say, how to interact or even how to be, just be with someone, feeling a stifling pressure to do the connection thing. It’s not a skills thing, it’s a motivation thing. I know I’m not alone in this! So, it’s a relief sometimes now, having an obvious reason not to be with people, not to have to talk, consider others, decide what to share and what to ask. I can just be.

In the wake of this, I sometimes get an internal rumbling of shame now when I feel the easy flow of not doing (or having to do) things with others, a turmoil of simultaneously wanting and not wanting social connection. Shame might sound harsh but it feels as though I’m not living true to the essentially social nature of being a human. The inner critic is saying we are driven to social connection and if you don’t want it, shame on you! Paradoxically, when I’m alone for more than a day or so, I am surprised at how quickly I get that sense of being a bit adrift in my thoughts, feeling a little lost or inexplicably apprehensive. I guess that’s the drive to be sociable pushing through.

I’m left pondering, on the one hand, how far I will risk our (it’s not just mine after all) physical safety in order to be socially connected and, on the other hand, how much jeopardy I am willing to face socially in order to maintain our physical safety. That’s why it feels wrong to push for ‘social distancing’. Confusing physical distancing with social distancing implies that to stay safe we need to be anti-social. In fact, to stay safe and well, we need to pursue ways of fuelling our social essence whilst being physically safe. Stay Safe & Connect should be the new slogan.