There is something about going through a common experience together that unmistakably connects us, whether we realize it or not at the time.
Sometimes, the connection comes from experiences that are literally play: games, sports, theatre. Other bonds can arise from genuine life and death experiences. Did the phrase COVID-19 pandemic just come to mind?
About 10 years ago, for example, I was in Canada’s first-ever high school stage production of Phantom of the Opera. It was an arduous seven-month process of auditions, callbacks, sound checks, orchestra practices, dress rehearsals and costume fittings, before we eventually performed the opening night show. When the curtains closed, the audience on its feet, we as a cast erupted in cheers and brouhaha, proud of what we had accomplished.
It was a real, tangible community – setting out to do something hard, and succeeding (even though we managed to skip an entire scene in the show). We were loud, proud and grateful to work together through it, reminiscing as time went on about how gruelling those rehearsal months were, and how many times we had to rehearse certain scenes before they were perfect.
Today, self-isolated at home, I’m curiously reminded of that community: the feeling of accomplishing something difficult together. As I sit connecting online with friends and family from afar, practicing necessary physical distancing to the best of my ability, I go back time and again to that opening night performance. Looking at our online social communications renews that all-in-this-together feeling.
Social distancing has, it seems, unleashed a new kind of closeness in our online networks. While the Twitter trolls are still rampant, and Facebook comments can still be a venue for discourse in its worst form, social media have become a friendlier, more connected place. Celebrities live stream house concert performances. Churches record their services for congregations to tune into. Universities offer courses free of charge. We’re all figuring this out, in our own ways and corners of the Internet world.
As my colleague, Peter Stockland, said in a recent column, it’s hard to remember life before, while we’re living during this pandemic. When did we last speak of anything else? Yet I remember, mere weeks ago, feeling that social media was really, really good at disconnecting us. Instead of paying attention to life in front of our noses, there was a temptation to stare at our screens. But now, staring at our screens is actually, kind of, helping us to connect.
Who woulda thought we’d be praising social media for its ability to connect us far and wide? Social media never was entirely positive or entirely negative. It’s no substitute for real face-to-face contact. We do still crave those human interactions.
But think about it. In previous world crises, we would experience virtually total isolation. There would no opportunities for connecting beyond those who share our houses. In the social media age, we are urged to support suffering local businesses, to check on our neighbours, to be kind to one another, to practice hygiene – all good things, regardless of whether we’re in a global pandemic.
True, our church congregations can’t gather physically. There is no more meeting in coffee shops with old friends. Family dinner parties are at least a temporarily forgotten dream. But this online connection, while it has neither the comfort of hug from a long lost friend nor the warmth of a local barista’s brew, is uniting us in a welcome way.
We can’t leave our houses, but we can create memes and share jokes online. We can connect even at a great distance about this shared experience.
Considering my fairly privileged way of life, this quarantine hasn’t been that bad. (Talk to me in six months if this is still going on; it may not age well). I can walk outside, work from home, bake cookies, pick up necessities. It’s a tad lonely in our apartment, but my husband and I are making it work. My quarantine life is still far more comfortable than the way much of the world lives.
I wonder, as I sit around pondering how long this will last, what the world will look like when the dust settles. Not about the inevitable tragedy that will surely continue, but how we will adjust in the after.
It’s certainly possible that some weeks or months from now, we’ll emerge and go back to business-as-usual. But my uneducated guess is we’ll come out of this feeling more connected to one another, having shared this experience, be it easy or hard, of quarantine life. Feeling, even just a tiny bit, more human. We’ll relish the physical contact we’ve been denied, enjoy the bustle of public transit without fearing sickness, appreciate local libraries and movie theatres for their offerings.
The following lines from Pope Francis sum up well the hopeful aftermath of this onerous moment in history:
“Tonight before falling asleep think about when we will return to the street. When we hug again, when all the shopping together will seem like a party. Let’s think about when the coffees will return to the bar, the small talk, the photos close to each other. We think about when it will be all a memory but normality will seem an unexpected and beautiful gift. We will love everything that has so far seemed futile to us. Every second will be precious. Swims at the sea, the sun until late, sunsets, toasts, laughter. We will go back to laughing together. Strength and courage.”
When the curtains close and social distancing is no longer necessary, I can only hope that even the connections we’ve forged over social media will make us more human. It has to.