In all honesty, this whole COVID-19 experience has been pretty emotionally exhausting, what with all the worry about what if I catch it and die?! (which is a totally valid concern, and one I share with a lot of folks)… and then all the people running around like Woo Hoo! Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die (and take everyone around us down with us, I might add).
It’s not every day that people get to stare their mortality in the face, quite like we’ve been forced to do.
And it’s not every day that we have to take responsibility for our impacts on others, quite like we’re currently unable to avoid.
So, yeah, this is a very unique situation we’re in. And like Ginger (above), I’ve realized that I’m just NOT cut out to be an emotional support person to the entire world.
Okay, okay, my immediate family excluded, of course. I’m not going to stop supporting my partner or my other loved ones. But lemme tell you… everybody – and I mean everybody – I’m coming across, these days, seems to need some sort of emotional support in the midst of this storm. I mean, that’s how we’re built, right?
It seems to me, the more separated we are by our social distancing and the moratorium on close personal contact, the more needy everybody’s getting. Have you noticed that? Maybe you’re one of the people who’s increasingly annoyed by this. Maybe you’re one of the people whose neediness is spiking through the roof, the longer you’re not allowed to be around a lot of other people. I don’t blame you, if you are. It’s how we’re built.
Because here’s the thing — and this is core to the whole concept of my book, Beloved Distance — the human being is built to connect. Or maybe I should say, the human doing is built to connect. After all, connection is what we do… while separate is what we are. And the more we are kept from connecting, the more our drive to connect is strengthened and enhanced. See, we have about 90,000 miles of neurons in our bodies, sending the signals that make life possible in a nearly infinite variety of ways. From sensory experiences to movement to complex thought to basic reflexes, information travels our “wiring” with mind-boggling speed.
But while all those miles of wires interlace our system, the one thing that actually makes them work – that makes them transmit the information we need to live, breathe, and go about our lives – is the distance embedded within. For our neurons are not directly connected. It sounds strange, but they just aren’t. They are divided by “synapses” – tiny gaps across which neurotransmitters pass, to send the neural messages that keep us alive. In fact, if we didn’t have those gaps, we probably wouldn’t survive, because the electrical signals actually degrade when they’re passed along a physical pathway, and the neurotransmitters “jump start” the strengths (and natures) of the signals when they get to those synaptic gaps.
Pretty amazing, isn’t it?
What a lot of people don’t realize (actually, just about everybodydoesn’t realize), is that the whole reason we are able to think and move and live and breathe and exist and do much more than exist, is because of the distance that is embedded in our systems.
Rather than distance being something that blocks us, it’s actually something that animates us, that enlivens us, that makes us who and what we really, truly are.
So, there you go. Our connections matter to us. Our direct connections mean so much to us. But when you get down to it, it’s the distance that actually strengthens our connections. Just like not being able to directly contact our extended family members, makes us all the more eager to reach out in new and different ways, the gaps in our neurology sparks our biochemistry to get our bodies’ messages where they need to go.
When you don’t have that distance, and you can’t catch a break… well, you can end up like Ginger, up there.
People not keeping their distance? They aren’t doing it as much as they should, from what I’ve seen. I dunno if it’s just all new to people, or if they just really don’t get the importance of social distancing, but for whatever reason, some people just suck at keeping 6 feet between themselves and others. And they’re not covering their coughs. They’re not being smart, or safe.
That’s much more stressful for me, than the existence of the virus, itself. ‘Cause on its own, the virus is just a virus. It needs people to spread. And they’re happy to oblige.
I’m over it. So, rather than relying others to use the sense that God gave ’em (tho’ it’s debatable in some cases if that even happened), I’m doing my “Magic Mask” trick. All I have to do, is pull on a procedural mask and venture out.
And people keep their distance. Woo hoo.
I figured this out about 8 years ago, when I worked for a company headquartered in Paris. Every new year, I’d have to make a number of trips over to France to meet my new boss(es). The company liked to re-org on an annual basis, which meant that in January I’d have someone new to meet – and they wanted to meet in person. Of course they did. 😐
Sometimes I’d make trips in January, February, and March. I think one year, I had two trips in March. It was a lot less fun than it sounds like, just for the record. I generally had to leave 3 weeks between each trip, so they were all crammed in there in the winter. And if you live in a climate where those months are full of bad weather, snow, sleet, ice, etc., you probably know what a pain it was to travel during that time.
Not only was the weather awful here, but it was terrible in France, too. So, I had the added stress of needing to keep my house shoveled and de-snowed and de-iced as much as possible… and I had all the French winter weather and germs to deal with.
Big deal, right? Um… yeah, it was a big deal, because you generally don’t develop resistance to germs in other countries, and when you’re traveling long hours on jet lag and less sleep… with longer work days because you have to answer all your danged European andUSA emails… and you’re constantly interacting with people who love to make contact, whether it’s kissing on each cheek at the beginning and end of each day, or it’s shaking hands… that’s a whole extra world of hurt you can buy.
And pretty much every trip, I would get sick when I returned. Which is a problem, when the other person in the household get sick as a result, and that person literally can’t afford to be sick. At all. Because then they can’t work. And if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. So, you see the problem.
I had to self-quarantine at least once. Checked myself into a hotel for a few days after returning, so I could get home without bringing stuff straight off the plane.
Now, back in 2012, people just didn’t get why it was a problem to travel like that. What was the big deal? How sick could I get? They hadn’t had the opportunity to deal with this coronavirus business, and they seemed to kind of take for granted that getting sick was no big deal. It was just part of life. (I wonder how they’re feeling now.)
But like I said, for me it was a big deal.
So, I started wearing a mask. I picked up a box of 50 from CVS and took them with me. I wore one on the plane, flying over… and it was magical. Not only did people not crowd me, but the flight attendants were also super deferential. They kept their distance. They didn’t give me crap about whatever they’re trained to give you crap about. I got no attitude. Just a lot of space. And it was glorious.
I did it on the way home, too. Same thing happened. Everybody kept their distance. And I had a very relaxing trip back.
The best thing about it was… I didn’t get sick. I don’t know if I just had more immunity built up, or if I’d done a better job about washing my hands at every opportunity, or if I’d gotten better sleep and eaten better food… or if it was the mask. But bottom line, for once, I did not get sick.
Nowadays, the whole mask thing is a different story. At least, that’s how I understand it. Now, the point of wearing a mask is to protect others from your cough. I don’t have a cough (touch wood), and I have no symptoms of COVID-19. But a mask is still coming in handy. Because I never know what’s out there. And even if I don’t have “corona”, I could still pick something else up… and bring it home to where it can do some serious damage. And – most importantly – because it’s one sure way to keep people at a distance. Seriously, they back away from me and give me plenty of room. Which is truly delightful.
I get some wary looks, of course. And the cashiers at the store were mighty nervous around me. But making other people uncomfortable is a small price to pay for getting some space… some distance… some beloved distance.
Almost five months ago, I posted here about how separations really drive our economy. And I thought to myself, “Yeah, that’s fine I can post about this, but are people ever going to really get it about how important distance is to our daily lives, not to mention our survival?”
Now, separation is a part of our daily lives. Like it or not, we’re all involved in a master class of how to live life without the usual contacts we have with family, friends, co-workers, and all the people who used to annoy us, whom we suddenly miss (or not).
And any case I wanted to make about how we actually need distance in our lives, has been made for me. An invisible (yet deadly) little organism is making its way through our world, thanks to close contact. And one of the few ways we actually know we can address this is to keep our distance.
These days, we’re all (hopefully) social distancing. Or at the very least, we’re being urged to practice social distancing, in hopes of limiting the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. Memes abound (see above), some of them more entertaining than others. Some are hilarious. Others… well, they’re memes, after all. And as all of this unfolds, with few of us feeling truly safe, needless to say, we’re all looking for the meaning in this.
Some folks look to their faith. Some look to science. Some look to their leaders. Some look to data, patterns, trends. Others watch t.v. or go online (and stay there). But wherever we look, the impulse is the same — to find the meaning in all of this… To understand. To not feel like our lives are being completely wasted over nothing, and that we and the ones we care about, truly do count for something in this impersonal world that frankly doesn’t seem to give a damn about whether we live or die, these days.
To be honest, I’m not sure whose “camp” I’m in. Maybe all of them – an eclectic mix of faith and science and data and pattern-finding and television murder mysteries and social media. I can see the value in all of them. Tho’, to be honest, I don’t look much to leaders these days, other than to figure out if their policies are likely to get me killed or not. Everybody’s free to look wherever they like for direction and comfort. I’ll never begrudge anyone their own inclination. But I’ve been thinking about distance and separation for years, now — which goes back to long before the several years I spent researching and writing Beloved Distance.
And in the midst of this all, I find some unlikely comfort that the patterns I recognized about humanity’s dance with distance are playing out just as I’d expect. It’s not that the circumstances are great – they’re not. But at least I recognize the general awfulness that’s making the rounds, these days.
According to Bloomberg and other news outlets, the U.S. is in an economic expansion, and despite warnings of recession, some are saying it’s going to continue. No matter the mumurations of the “sayers of doom and nay”, there’s a chance we’ll continue in the current trend… and things may stay as they are, politically speaking.
I won’t get into taking sides, right here. What fascinates me about it is that, no matter who gets into office, all the divisions between Right and Left, Rich and Poor, One Side and The Other… well, it’s all been very good for business. And I believe it’s driven a ton of economic expansion over the past several years — maybe longer.
Yes, definitely longer. Ever since we got invested in proving how different we are from others, whether politically or economically or culturally or gender-wise (the heightened gender stuff has been ever more intensely marketed to us, ever since mass media showed up – more on that later).
Anyway, I’m going to take a contrarian attitude to whether this is a good or bad thing. It depends who you talk to, of course, but I can’t say it’s a terrible thing, all across the board.
Certainly, it’s common, these days, to stress over the separations we encounter on a daily basis. Political, cultural, economic… Strife in the land. Families torn apart. Communities at each others’ throats. Members of one party pitted against each other on Twitter, Facebook, and whatever medium you care to consider.
I’ve heard great wailing and gnashing of teeth, over the past years, as people have voiced concerns over the USA being a divided nation. And a city divided against itself can’t stand… or something like that.
And yet, all the divisions spawn a whole lot of activity. Defining identities. Giving people a sense of belonging. Boosting manufacture and sales of partisan swag. Boosting sales of partisan viewpoints. Driving the ascendancy of social outlets like Facebook and Twitter (especially Twitter). And that’s been a huge boon for a lot of groups — pretty much everybody, if you think about it.
Looking back over the past 50 years (which seems to be the timeframe before which, according to some, everything in this country was so much better than it is now), there’s been a steady erosion of identity, a steady erosion of communities. We’re more mobile, now, which means we don’t put down roots in just one place. We spend an awful lot of time online, which has no location and displaces us from our present situation. Roles have changed. Economics have changed. Jobs have changed. Everything’s changed — especially the things that used to give us a sense of purpose and belonging.
How to restore that sense we’ve since lost? It’s not hard. Identify an Enemy (ideas or people or policies or whatever) and gather your like-minded tribe members in defiance of it. That’s how we’ve been doing it since time immemorial.
In giving individuals a new sense of belonging, the economy has taken off. I would even hazard to say that it’s taken off in certain sectors precisely because of the huge surge in adversarial tribalism.
Whole television networks continue to cash in, ushering in a new golden age of bias-laden monetization. It’s as true of the Left, as it is of the Right. And there are plenty of other Progressive or Ultra-Conservative media outlets that have benefited as well. Media in general has made out like bandits, as they’ve targeted specific segments of the population with their particular “narrative”. From one channel to the next, you’d never guess we were living in the same country. It’s like the media channels have spun up parallel universes, where they’ve cornered the market on that particular version of How Things Are, and everybody can go off and do their thing, as long as they don’t encroach on their narrative.
And we’ve eaten it up.
Absolutely, positively. The human system thrives on separation. Our tribes gather new life and purpose, when we know who we aren’t, we intensify the threat from outsiders, and we pit ourselves collectively against that common enemy.
Our own personal understanding of how and where we fit in the world benefit, as well. After all, we now have a tribe that supports and reinforces our perspectives in self-fulfilling promises of, “You’re okay, but they’re not, and that makes you better than them”.
This is not to diminish the importance of that point of view. We absolutely, positively crave a sense of who we are, and that sense is driven to a considerable extent by who we aren’t. It’s just how we’re built, and passing judgment on it doesn’t help us understand how it works. Still, I’d bet $50 you’re arguing with me in your head, right now, because a part of you needs to believe I’m wrong – and you’re right.
Bottom line, we need our separations, and that’s exactly what we’ve got, these days. In abundance. And all the while, the news and media outlets that serve our own individual version of reality and reinforce our rightness… well, they’re going quite well for themselves. Numbers are up. They’ve cracked the code to staying afloat in a world of disruptive technologies and information sources. And as they continue to do well, our own separate versions of reality give us a continued sense of stability and safety. Because they’re telling us we’re right. And others are wrong. And we can rest assured that we’re not the only ones who think what we think.
As problematic as all the schisms and conflict in our current American society may be, they’re part and parcel of who we are and where we are at this point in time. Fighting them and judging them as “bad for humanity” won’t offer us any insight into their true nature. And that certainly won’t let us work constructively with them.
Yeah, it would be nice to be able to just talk to each other as human beings. But there’s a whole lot more to be gained personally and socially (and there’s a lot more money to be made) from keeping us separate and at each others’ throats.
So, what does all this have to with cooling our world on fire? How does this help us find unity and a sense of connection with others? As discussed, affinity groups are defined not only by who’s in, but by who’s out. In a close-knit community, it’s perhaps even more critical to know who doesn’t belong, than it is to know who does belong. That knowledge protects us from threats. It secures our borders. It reassures us that we can let our guard down around the people near us, because the ones who aren’t safe have been banished to the regions beyond our walled community. Our tendency to look for differences, to compete, and to disqualify is an absolutely integral, protective human inclinations. It’s important. Our society might not exist, if we didn’t have it.
But wait – isn’t Othering harmful? Isn’t finding and emphasizing separation and alienation an actual contributor to our collective pain and suffering? Isn’t this diametrically opposed to the ideal goal of Unity and Oneness? Rather than pushing people out and forcing them “off the island”, shouldn’t we be doing the exact opposite: welcoming them in, with all their diversity of abilities and traits, to include them in our unified community?
We look for connection, we seek it, we crave it, we have to have it.
And yet, separating ourselves from others is the one sure way we have that quality-controls the “social container” we inhabit. Othering (both ourselves and other people) makes it possible for us to feel safe, to feel protected, to know who we’re dealing with and what the rules of engagement are.
You can’t just let anybody in…
As harsh as that may sound, it’s really the way our communities function. To feel like we belong, we need to know who doesn’t belong, and we need to keep them out. So the ones allowed in, are in.
Human nature. It’s just how we function.
And there it is.
But what about the harm that separation is doing to us?
Like countless people (I’m sure the number keeps changing), I downloaded my data and took a quick look earlier today. Hm. Pretty boring, actually. I don’t use Messenger that much, and I don’t have an Android phone, so that’s been a bit prophylactic. I’ve been in the web space for over 20 years, and from the start, I’ve been skeptical about the ability of anyone to keep me safe online. Safe from others. Safe from myself. Safe for others.
So, I’ve self-censored considerably over the years.
I hear a chorus of dismay rising up — Censor yourself?! How horrible! It seems, at times, that total freedom is the goal of our modern world, and that’s fine for everybody else. But seriously, this place is full of people who wish others less-than-well, and that’s as true online as it is offline, so caveat emptor. For days. Yeah, I’ve censored myself. And the result is that I haven’t been rocked by the shock waves of indignation that lots of other people feel.
Either that, or I’m not being pessimistic enough about how creatively data scrapers can use my PII against me.
But I digress. This isn’t really about me, after all. It’s more about us. Our need to connect, to stay connected. Our fear of missing out and getting disconnected. We all know just how easy it is to get cut off from our social circles. Sometimes, all it takes is a wrong word, a misspoken opinion, or even a look that gets taken the wrong way. You wear the wrong piece of clothing in the wrong season, and you’re a marked person. Things seem to have loosened up around the “no white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day” rule that was etched in stone during my childhood, but you know what I mean.
Sure, you do.
You know as well as I do, the feel of that internal cringe, when something comes out wrong, or somebody doesn’t respond to you the way you’d hoped. You mis-hear what someone else says and/or they misinterpret your response. And before you know it, you’ve got Problems.
Those Problems are very real, for they’re all wrapped up in the whole of our identities, our sense of safety and belonging in the world, as well as our definitions of what will and will not keep us safe. Those Problems can go so far as to get you beaten up. Even killed, if you’re in the wrong situation. It’s easier than ever, these days, to end up in the wrong part of town, and pay for it.
I’m not just talking about White folks in Black or Hispanic neighborhoods, or Black men driving through predominantly White neighborhoods. I’m talking about University of Georgia fans speaking out of turn in an Auburn sports bar — I once had an extended conversation with a woman whose husband had to be hustled out the back door of such a bar after having a few beers and running his mouth against his wife’s advice. I’m talking about somebody losing their filter while they’re in the middle of political opposites and ending up with their car keyed.
Say the wrong thing in the wrong way at work, and you can get shown the door. And there goes your monthly credit card payment, toppling your credit rating, as well as your future job prospects (since many employers run credit reports on prospective new hires). A poorly timed joke can turn from a pebble dropped in a pond to an earthquake that sets off a tsunami. Or the wrong piece of information can leak to the Wall Street Journal, and before you know it, your employer’s in full “spin mode” and you have to watch what you say to anyone and everyone, since you’re a walking, talking representative of the company.
It’s all so precarious.
Sheesh, how did we get to this place? I mean, people can get seriously hurt over things that used to just elicit eye rolls and shrugs. Ah… simpler times. I remember those days when you could detest other people (and vice versa) without homicide being in the mix. I remember when an honest misunderstanding wouldn’t push a person to social-media-fueled suicide. Apparently, I’m a dinosaur. Like I said, simpler times. Lord, how did this all get so … dire?
But here’s the thing, though. In spite of it all, I still have hope. If we got to this place, we can extract ourselves from it. I really, truly believe that. Life is cyclical. Pretty much everything alive moves in patterns of back-and-forth vacillations. And I believe with every cell in my body, we have the capacity to back away from the brink, just as we’ve danced along its edge, over and over and over again, throughout the course of human history. We’re just learning a sh*t-ton of tough lessons, right now, absorbing an array and variety of data points in massive volumes that never, ever factored into the mix, before. The Way Things Have Always Been Done… well, that’s sorta kinda imploded/exploded, and we’re left picking up the pieces that fell closest to us, trying to fit them into a cohesive narrative about our world.
So, where was I…? Oh, yeah, how easy it is to get out of sync.
And how absurd that is.
In Beloved Distance, I talk a lot about meaning… the patterns we use to figure out how what’s happened fits into our understanding of the world, as well as where events are going to take us… and how. While I was absorbed in my meditations on meaning, last year, I coincidentally happened across a lot of writing about the “absurd” state of the human condition immediately after World War II. Samuel Beckett. Albert Camus. Václav Havel. Existentialism. You know… light reading.
And it occurred to me that absurdity — the quality or state of being ridiculous or wildly unreasonable — could be seen as the quality or state of lacking meaning. After all, we rely on meaning to reason. We rely on our sense of meaning to establish balance and predictability. And our understanding of which causes lead to which effects (and why) makes it possible for us to stabilize ourselves in a confusing and disorienting world. When we lose meaning — lose the plot, lose touch with the overarching patterns — everything starts to look ridiculous and unreasonable.
Which is where Europe was after World War II with the rise of authoritarian states, and all the upheaval of the Cold War. The old monarchy and Order of Things … well, that was history. Literally. There were no clear patterns ahead, there were no circumstances that could reliably point to predictable outcomes. Everything was impossible to fathom, in a historical sense, because it was all new… and unexpected.
That, I feel, is where we are now — in the same kind of situation. Past patterns can’t be relied upon, because we’ve never had conditions like this: The Internet. Facebook (and everybody else) collecting data on a vast scale. Defense contractors deploying information warfare techniques against the civilian population in service to political interests. I’m not sure we’ve ever been here before.
And yes, it is absurd.
In the midst of it all, perhaps the most absurd aspect of it, is how disconnected we are, even as we are hyperconnected technologically. We have the means to bridge gaps, to find belonging, to become a part of something larger than ourselves, and yet… we don’t. Maybe our human natures haven’t quite caught up with our capabilities. Well, yeah. They really haven’t yet. And so we miss out on a whole lot of opportunities to make more of ourselves and our situation than what it’s been.
It’s absurd, really.
It’s like we’re not at all the macro equivalent of the billions of interconnected cells in our brains, in our bodies. It’s like we’re neurons that think we’re cut off from each other, when we’re actually in close communication and interaction, every living moment of our lives. It’s like we think we can actually function as a species, by pushing others away and cutting ourselves off.
You may have heard that Facebook is changing its algorithm to show less public content in your feed. The goal is to get people to engage more with their feed, using the personal connections you have with real-live people, versus paying advertisers.
About a month ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced:
The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos — even if they’re entertaining or informative — may not be as good.
Based on this, we’re making a major change to how we build Facebook. I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.
And while I’m not actually on Facebook enough to notice a huge shift in my own life, a number of friends have commented on it. One more instance of Facebook just doing its own thing and messing around with the platform — love it or hate it — that a lot of people have come to depend on for keeping connected to their personal networks.
What I find particularly interesting about this move, is that it’s making the digital experience of Facebook more analog. And it’s making it behave more like our own neural networks, which rely on the analog synapses to transmit not only sense information, but also let us do something with/about it.
So, what does that mean? Digital? Analog? What’s that about, and who cares?
Ahem… here’s the high-level view:
Digital signals are binary on/off — they’re either there, or they’re not. And as data about the sensation of stepping on a tack travels — OW! OW! OW! — along your nerves, until it reaches your synaptic cleft, where it suddenly becomes “analog”, or varied. It’s just just about whether pain is there or not. It’s pain the context of the many, many neurotransmitters and synaptic processes which interact with the pain signals traveling along.
Very roughly, it’s like this:
Oh, look… a tack — OW! OW! OW! — and then when the pain signal hits the synaptic cleft, you have a slightly different experience, where more of your body is interacting with that data and doing something with it. Glial cells interact with the neurotransmitters. The little packets of dopamine or serotonin or histamine trigger interactions with other “stuff” in our system, and our experience gets “built out” by all that interaction. We feel things other than “just” the pain. It’s not just about whether our tissues are being damaged by a pointy object; it’s about everything that goes along with that. And after the pain gets to the other side of the cleft, the signal continues on as something that “just is”, rather than being something varied or subject to interpretation.
Until it hits the next synapse, where it goes analog again.
So, very, very roughly, that’s the difference between digital and analog.
And in a very real way, Facebook is trying to become more analog:
Shifting people from a digital Pissed Off / Not Pissed Off state, to being more thoughtful, more engaged, having more variation in the “signal” that’s transmitting through the vast network of interconnected Facebook users.
It’s a worthy goal, to get people out of the mindless On/Off state of intense arousal.
The only problem is… opioids. And how social media gets us addicted to them. It’s not just dopamine that Facebook triggers. Also, the opioids our own bodies produce (called “endogenous opioids”).
But more on that later. I’ll just leave this here, for now:
Facebook’s change may not make sense to a lot of people. It may seem cynical, or it might seem like too little, too little. But in fact, with this shift they’re actually more closely emulating the human neurological system, ostensibly in hopes of mitigating the damage from a predominantly digital experience.