I have been thinking a lot recently about the term “social distancing.” I am not sure I like it really, and I will tell you why. The need for physical distance from other people at the moment is vital and paramount. It clearly prevents the spread of COVID-19. But seeing as restaurants, pubs and other shops are open, one can spend all day, every day with people, chatting and socializing at a distance. It is “physical distancing” that we are being told to fulfill, not “social distancing.”
But I wonder if the most difficult thing for people to deal with and accept, is what I would call ‘social rationing’. In other words, to keep oneself safe, it is not just about distancing from people enough when you are with them; but making sure that one spends less time with people. The more reduced our social time with others, the lesser the chance we have of contracting from someone who is asymptomatic.
We live in an age where individualism and individual aspiration has grown rapidly. This is an economic phenomenon, nurtured through the age of what many call neo-liberalism. It is also a social and cultural one, encouraged by the era of the postmodern and its detestation of larger scale grand narratives for life. And yet paradoxically, at this time of heightened individualism, people feel tethered in some way to others. This is expressed by the need to fill the diary socially, to have a significant footprint on social media, and especially for teenagers, to be defined very much through the friendships made with others. It reminds me of the Passover competition of how many people one can invite to their Pesach Seder meal!
Maybe this period of pandemic has thrown us back on ourselves. Admittedly for many that is painful. For those who have depression, who have conflict in the home, the outside world can be a saviour from pain. But for many, it has been a chance to live without the pressure of others. And that does not mean turning to self-centredness. Caring for one’s self does not shut out the possibilities to help others around and in wider society.
After the creation of the first biblical couple, Adam and Eve, the Torah states something about marriage. We find this:
‘Therefore a man will leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife so that they become one’ (Genesis, 2:24 )
What interests me here is the ‘leaving’ that needs to be done. In order to make a successful future, a person needs to leave their parents world and become themselves, a person in their own right. Only then can they work towards a new union. There is so much to learn from this ontological statement. It makes me think of the well-known Torah commandment ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. If we look at the Hebrew translation of this statement, it could be understood to be saying, ‘Love your neighbour, the same way as you love yourself’. In other words, self-love, caring for oneself is the basis of being able to love others. For those who may have experienced a deficit of love in their younger life, they will have to learn how to love themselves.
So, in the situation now find ourselves in, such a radical change from only a few months ago, if we can learn how to be with ourselves and to reflect, we may be able to learn to look after both our physical health and our mental health.