#2: Build Meaningful Connections - Even With "Social Distancing"
With so many recent Covid-19 related closures of large community centers - schools, workplaces, churches, theatres, etc.- many of us are finding a need to fill our time in new ways. And as "social distancing" is one of the top recommendations for minimizing the spread of the virus, how can we get through this period without feeling lonely and disconnected from others? Here's a few practical tips that can help:
First - Deepen Connection with Those Nearest and Dearest
People need people - especially in hard or scary times. One of the most enduring lessons from the 9-11 crisis was -- people survived the tragedy by turning to each other, and extending meaningful support. Even in a tough busy town like New York City, in the midst of the crisis, people focused on their families, extended kindness and compassion to each other, and remembered what and who was truly most important to them. We can draw on that important lesson, in the new challenges we're facing together now.
Our first and most direct opportunity for connection lies with those we live with. For many of us, that's our immediate family. For others, it may be roommates, a live-in romantic partner, or even a beloved pet animal. Whoever you share living space with, you will now most likely be spending more time with. So make it happy, productive, useful time. Don't squander it by anxiously huddling in front of some electric screen binge-watching Netflix, overdosing on scary news updates, or disappearing into video games or other distractions. Instead, use this newfound opportunity to spend time together in meaningful, positive, and memorable ways. Cherish those you live with - and show them by your focused time and attention how important they are to you.
I'll never forget one stormy night, early in my childhood, where I first learned this lesson. My family had just moved to a new state, uprooting us from all our previous friends and neighbors, in a time before social media existed. In that early time, we only had each other. And on the first night we arrived, a massive tornado hit - tearing huge trees down to their roots, decimating surrounding buildings, knocking out electric power for hours, and doing other significant wind damage. Yet, I didn't experience that night as a scary time. Because my parents took me and my siblings into the basement of that old stone house we'd moved to, lit a few candles, and we played board games together for hours, as the storm raged outside. As a 7 year old girl, I had no idea how much destruction was going outside our home. Because those nearest and nearest to me were gathered together, in the flickering light of those little candles, sharing time, games, and laughter.
Similarly, over this recent disruptive week, my husband and I (who now share an empty-nest home) have had the opportunity to share FAR more time with each other than usual, in the midst of all the cancellations, closures, and other recent changes. So every day this week, for the first time in our 30-year marriage, we've gone on a walk outside together for an hour or more each day - talking about our goals and dreams, expressing our feelings and concerns about current events, and sharing the added bonus of mood-lifting exercise and sunlight. This recent crisis has provided precious opportunities for strengthening our intimate connection.
So, share meaningful time with those you live with - whether it's making cookies with your roommates, having a tea party with your small children, or even taking your dog out every day for a rousing game of catch. In doing so, you can build connections and sweet memories that can long outlast this current crisis, and provide hopeful, needed, and comforting refuge from today's challenges.
Second - Take Time to Hear Your Own Inner Voice
In the rush, pressure, and distractions of normal 21st-century life, we often lose track of our own needs - our own soul - our own inner voice. So if now you suddenly find yourself home a lot more than usual, with a lot of your normal activities and uses of time unavailable to you - it can be an excellent time to dive deep, and get reacquainted with your own often-neglected inner self. This is particularly important for individuals who live alone, and need to fill their time in positive, meaningful ways. But it is also important for the rest of us.
Take time to journal - to set goals - to read insightful books. Maybe you'll want to identify a class or two you can take online, to develop new skills or insights during this newly-available time. Or, pick up a musical instrument or other hobby you've been too busy to enjoy for a while. Take the time to exercise, to sleep, to cook healthy, to eat right - to provide the positive self-care you know you should really be extending to yourself all the time, but that you have more time and opportunity available now to give to yourself. Develop positive new habits now, during this downtime, that can make you happier, healthier, and more self-ware - habits that will serve you during this current crisis, and can then enrich your life for years to come, long after Corona has come and gone.
Third - Pick Up the Phone, and Enjoy Actual Two-Way Communication
Our smart phones can now do so many things, and accomplish so many tasks for us, that we often forget the central reason phones were invented - to facilitate actual two-way communication with someone we're not currently standing next to. We use our phones to send quick texts or social media posts, to check our Instagram feed, to click repeatedly into news or weather updates, to scan our daily flood of emails, to tune into our favorite podcast, audiobook, or Spotify feed; or to escape into another round of Candy Crush or Solitaire. But let us not forget the fundamental reason these amazing machines exist - to help us TALK to other people that we can't be with at the moment.
Two-way, extended, meaningful phone conversation is in many ways a forgotten joy from yesteryear. But it is one we can rediscover and reignite, in this unique time of "social distancing." We may have to bypass the birthday party with Grandpa, for his safety, if we're feeling a little rundown or achy. But we could still call him on the phone, and give him the cherished gift of time to catch up on how we both are doing. We might not be able to attend the theatre, or the sporting event, or work out at the rec center that just closed yesterday. But we can call the child that's away at college, or reach out to a friend we haven't seen for a while, or the parent we've been too busy to visit, or the neighbor living alone just down the street.
We can take the time to show we care. We can initiate an exchange of ideas, feelings, and ideas. We can foster meaningful social connection, even while keeping at a safe "social distance." And in the process, we help protect ourselves and those we reach out to from the crushing loneliness - and increased risk of depression - that can otherwise result from our prescribed "social distancing."
Fourth - Use Technology to Connect - Not to Disconnect
In our modern age, we are blessed - and cursed! - with a proliferation of electronic devices -- computers, televisions, gaming consoles, mobile devices, etc. These devices can be powerful instruments for connecting with others, both far and near. They can inform us what is going on in the world, and what we can do to help. They can provide an environment for a shared playtime or entertainment experience with our loved ones. They can provide valuable education from our university, church, library, or online learning platform. They can provide a context for sharing our own ideas with others through social media, blogging, or other means. They are powerful instruments that can do powerful good -- when used wisely and productively.
Used unwisely, however, these powerful instruments can become merely expensive distractions and playthings. They can disconnect us from the real world, alienate us from the needs and presence of those around us, numb us to our own actual feelings and experiences, and flood us continuously with trivial, useless, or even frightening information.
Media addiction has become the most common form of addiction today - and like all addictions, it does tremendous harm to our mental health, our relationships, and our overall wellbeing. Misuse or overuse of technology can do incalculable damage to our capacity for connection - with others around us, and even with our own authentic selves.
So, with extra time on our hands, it is vitally important that we not OVERuse or MISuse technology, media, and social media. Rather, it is crucial that we use it wisely and productively - in balance with abundant NON-media activities that connect us with our loved ones, our inner selves, and the vibrant natural world around us.
Fifth - Go Where the People Are - In Wise and Moderate Doses
"Social Distancing" does not mean sitting alone watching TV in our houses all day and night. We truly need each other! - though not in large groups, in tight enclosed spaces.
So - go to the grocery store. Go to the mall. Go walking in the park, or hiking in the wilderness space near your home. Or even just walk around your neighborhood, and talk to others out walking their dogs, etc. Safest of course is to maintain 6 feet or more of distance between people. But especially if you're outside, in open sunlight, you get the benefit not only of social contact, but also of sunshine, fresh air, and activity, which is all healing and mood-lifting. See this article, "The Do's and Don't of Social Distancing" for more details and ideas. Also see this article, "Coronavirus and the Sun: A Lesson from the 1918 Influenza Pandemic" for more on why fresh air and sunlight can be so healing and rejuvenating during this time.
Conclusion - Putting This Challenging Time to Positive Use
By appying these 5 strategies, we can increase our capacity for caring and connection - even in a time of prescribed "social distancing." We can strengthen our close relationships, improve our self-awareness and self-care, and extend ourselves at safe physical distance to meaningful connections with those around us. All of these positive actions can help keep us and our loved ones emotionally well - even in challenging times.