During our stay-at-home mandates, virtual meetings have become the go-to for continuing necessary and meaningful relationships, and perhaps even to get a little self-care. In fact, some of us may find ourselves overbooked with digital appointments, be it Zoom board-game battles or FaceTime catch-up sessions — sometimes, with people we barely had any pre-pandemic contact with.
Although today it seems as common as oxygen, these technologies and devices are not available to all of us, namely those in lower income households. Those of us who have the luxury of this access are incredibly lucky. We are able to connect during this crisis — a crucial difference from those who struggled through the 1918 flu pandemic, major world wars, or during times of other widespread disease outbreaks.
There is something moving, empowering, and unique in all of this connection.
And yet, underneath the fun of a digital coffee date, or virtual Saturday night hangout, there is for me — and for many of us — an underlying sadness. At first, I chalked it up to the obvious restrictions placed upon us. “Of course we’re sad; we can’t go out or see anyone!” But as I continue to sit with these feelings, I’ve come to believe it’s about more than that virus outside.
As we’ve moved into a progressively digital age, we have, perhaps unwittingly, been setting up a hypothesis for decades: that virtual connection can replace human connection. We get lost on the internet instead of conversation, skip the movie theater for a date with a streaming service, and send emojis in lieu of talking about our feelings. In many ways, it seems we’ve actually been practicing social distancing for longer than we’ve been aware of.
This is not to negate the beauty of being able to connect, or the positivity brought by these technologies. But as we sit, in some ways more immersed and dependent on them than before, it’s an opportunity to examine our relationship to these tools… and to truly check in with what we feel (or don’t) when we use them.
The coronavirus pandemic may be novel, but feeling socially isolated is not. Great pain has come in mapping our lives onto the false images of social media outputs. Depressive or shameful feelings may arise in seeing representations of a life on Instagram, or seemingly unattainable successes touted in a Facebook post. The nuances of long phone conversations have been reduced to shorthand texts or gifs (still don’t know how to pronounce that). And why patronize your local grocer when you can just order from Amazon? This isolation from others has not only become more “do-able,” but reinforced by the many devices we have empowered to maintain this distance. And yet despite this…
We may miss a hand on our shoulder or a high five, a hug, the spontaneity of overlapping speech, the smile of a co-worker, or the furrowed brow of a friend’s concern. As we sit in these online gatherings and are struck with pangs of hunger such as these… what might it say about us as people? I believe it points to a deep, often unspoken, human longing to be together in real time. To connect without links or passwords, without worrying about wifi quality, or seeing how many “likes” we have. This longing speaks to something primal that is stitched into the fabric of our being as social creatures. It starts at birth where we establish that one of the prime ways to receive oxytocin — the hormone responsible for making us feel love, safety, and calm — is through touch and social connectivity (Farber, 2013). We’ve been pulling away from one another slowly, but now we’ve been forced to confront, head on, our innate wish for touch; to hear breath, to sit in a silence filled with meaning; to feel the energy in a room.
For all of these challenges in the time of COVID-19, I actually believe there is a silver lining. As we find ourselves, inevitably, sitting at our next digital hangout, feeling a bit unsatisfied, maybe we can find solace that the hypothesis failed. That while we are grateful for technological feats and conveniences, the ability to see a familiar face, or continue working… we still need more. Virtual connection cannot replace human connection.
During this time, I’ve had to confront a great number of things I’ve taken for granted: family dinners, talks with a local barista, the simple beauty of nature. Learning this hasn’t been easy, and it certainly didn’t help to alleviate the obvious stressors we’re facing. But the more these feelings arise, the more I wonder what this time may be teaching me. So, despite our aching for a return to normalcy… I certainly hope things are never the same again.
Farber, S. (2013). Why we all need touch and to be touched. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mind-body-connection/201309/why-we-all-need-touch-and-be-touched.