Healthy distancing is a phrase I coined to replace the term social distancing. As I wrote last week, we are distancing for healthy purposes not for social purposes and we must do out utmost to ensure that our healthy distancing does not result in social distancing.
Jews are careful to avoid negative words. When the Torah describes an impure animal, it goes out of its way to call it an animal that is not pure instead of calling it a contaminated animal. Jews refer to a cemetery as bet hachayim—house of life or bet olam—house of eternity rather than bet hakvarot—house of graves. Our bodies die but our souls transition into eternal life and though it is our bodies that are placed in the cemetery, we refer to the experience of the soul.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory always spoke in positive tones. He never referred to a hospital as a bet cholim—house for the ill. He preferred to call it a bet refuah—house of healing. He rarely if ever referred to a deadline. He preferred to call it a due date. The difference is subtle, but profound. A deadline connotes the death of a project. But the completion of a project is not its death. On the contrary, when the project is complete, it comes to life.
Similarly, the Rebbe rarely if ever spoke of death. Though it took more words to articulate it, he would insist on calling it the opposite of life. He rarely, if ever spoke of strife. He preferred to call it the opposite of peace. It can be cumbersome for us to screen our words so carefully, but with a little creativity we can make ourselves understood.
On the face of it, this seems unnecessary since we end up saying the same thing and everyone knows what we mean. But the truth is that it makes a big difference on many levels.
If strife is given a name, it takes on a life of its own. The strife becomes real in our mind and our energy turns negative. Calling it the opposite of peace connotes that we live in peace and that an exception has occurred. Exceptions can be easily corrected. What is more, an exception is something we all want to correct—we don’t want the exception to become our norm. But if strife becomes the new normal, we grow used to it and are no longer horrified by it. The same is true of illness, death, and the like.
On an even deeper level, the concern is that these negative ideas become reality. Humans function in three dimensions, thought, speech, and action. If you think about something, it exists in the realm of thought. For example, the Baal Shem Tov used to say that we are where our thoughts are. If you immerse yourself in a memory of a previous time, you can slip into that space and find yourself there to the extent that when you are roused, you are surprised to discover you are still here.
Rabbi Yisrael Alter, the fifth Rebbe of the Gur Chasidic dynasty, also knows as the Beis Yisroel, would famously greet people with Shalom Alechem as they departed the synagogue after services. Shalom Alechem is usually offered when people arrive, not when they leave. When someone asked him why he greeted him with Shalom Alechem as he was leaving, he replied, so far as I know, you just returned. When I looked at you during the prayers, I could see that you were distracted. I have no idea where you went, but you were certainly not here. Now that you have returned, I offered Shalom Alechem.
Thoughts are relatively safe because they unfold in the privacy of our minds and don’t impact others. At least not immediately. This is why the most embarrassing thing we can experience is for someone to read our minds. If others discovered the terrible things we think about them, we would be mortified. There are some people who have no filters—whatever is on their minds finds its way to their tongues. We usually cringe around such people because it is socially awkward.
On the surface, you might ask yourself, whether that person is correct. Shouldn’t we be honest with others and tell them what we think? Is it right to smile at them on the outside, but rage against them inwardly? Isn’t that hypocritical?
The answer is that it is surely hypocritical, but it is better than the alternative. If we amplify everything we think, we would destroy many relationships that don’t deserve to be destroyed. At some point or another, we will likely experience a negative thought about everyone in our social circle. If we let the thought go, the relationship won’t be impacted. Ho harm no foul. But if we express it before we give ourselves a chance to calm down and let it pass, the relationship will be impacted and will be difficult to restore. We can seek and receive forgiveness, but the relationship won’t be the same.
Once something is out in the air, it takes on a life of its own. The thoughts in our minds are real, but they are only real in the cerebral realm. They won’t impact the real world. The moment it comes out in speech, it takes on a whole new reality. It becomes real in the world of speech.
Suppose you get mad at your best friend and an angry thought flashes through your mind that you want to kill him. Well, you just committed cerebral murder, but fortunately, we don’t have thought police and you won’t be brought up on charges for such thoughts. Your friend doesn’t live inside your head, so when you killed him in your thoughts, he continues to live.
But suppose you give vent to your feelings and cry out, I am going to kill you! The concept takes flight from the protected sanctum of your thoughts and enters the realm of speech. Speech is real to your friend because though he exists outside of you, your speech reaches him. He knows that you are angry and that you would take perverse pleasure in his death. Although he doesn’t live in the realm of speech, you just killed him in that realm. You have committed verbal murder and that hurts.
Verbal murder is much closer to actual murder. You won’t be brought up on charges for committing verbal murder, but it can create serious complications. Firstly, the comment will reverberate in your friend’s head and harm your relationship as we discussed earlier. Secondly, if your friend is ever murdered, G-d forbid, you would fall under suspicion. Words are not harmless pastimes. They have real consequences. Cerebral murder is also not good, but it is two steps removed from actual murder, so it is not likely to create significant trouble for either of you. Verbal murder is only one step removed from actual murder and that can be deadly.
The words we speak have a reality in the realm of words, which is one step removed from the realm of action. When you speak of death, you introduce death to the verbal realm and to the people who hear you. When you speak of strife, it becomes real to the people who hear you. Better to avoid these words and speak of due dates rather than deadlines and life rather than death.
The same applies to social distancing. Though we don’t mean that we should be socially distant, when we speak these words, we create a verbal reality which forms expectations and impressions that can easily impact behavior. Let’s speak of healthy distancing, and let’s avoid all mention of social distancing.
Healthy distancing leads to health. Healthy distancing means to distance in a healthy way, which includes reaching out to others and remaining connected. Healthy distancing leads to life. Healthy distancing leads to healing. And when we will all be healthy and come together again, we will want it to be familiar and comfortable rather than awkward and unusual. Let’s, therefore, practice healthy distancing and let’s return to health as soon as is humanly possible.