At first it was odd. Now it has become very disturbing.
I go for walks in my neighborhood, which is in a densely populated, but beautiful city in northern California. Winding, tree lined streets that are alive with activity. Neighbors talking and laughing, strangers striking up conversations, parents telling their kids to wait up.
But not anymore.
About three weeks ago I noticed something strange. When walking down the sidewalk an older woman was walking toward me, then abruptly took a driveway out into the street. At first I didn’t think much of it. But then it started to happen regularly, and it struck me: we’re becoming afraid of one another.
Now it’s everywhere. People stand in line at the grocery store and nervously glance around to see if someone is standing too close. Six feet has become fifteen feet. Fear of the virus has turned into a paranoia that causes us to treat each other as a potentially deadly threat.
I find this deeply troubling.
What about concerts? Or small, quaint restaurants where in the past we didn’t mind sitting close to strangers – that was part of the allure. Pick up basketball games at the park? Shaking hands? Hugs?
We are social creatures by nature, and physical closeness – with our friends and family, as well as strangers – is an enriching experience.
In January I was at a local Irish pub, and a couple walked in and sat next to me at the bar. I heard the man say “A couple of drinks for me and my wife. Today is my birthday!” I caught the bartender’s eye and told her to put their drinks on my tab. When she told them that I had bought them their drinks, he turned to me and said “Wow! Thank you! I’m 55 years old today. My name is Oscar and this is my wife Nancy.” We had a great conversation, discussing the process of getting old, which seems to happen more frequently with me these days.
When I went to leave, I stood up and put my hand on Oscar’s shoulder and again wished him a happy birthday. He grabbed my hand and shook it heartily, again thanking me profusely for a simple gesture. Nancy jumped up and gave me a warm hug and a big smile. “It was so nice to meet you!” she said. I walked out feeling really good about brightening someone’s day.
I sincerely hope that those kinds of experiences aren’t gone forever. That would truly be the Curse of Social Distancing.