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11. On missing togetherness

Krista Tippett is the founder of On Being, which started out as a radio show inside the American Public Media organisation in 2003, and later morphed into a much wider project that considers, and invites us to consider, questions of being in the world: of faith, poetry, beauty, morality, spirituality and other good things that lift us up and out of ourselves.

The About page of the project’s website, refreshed since the arrival of the pandemic a year ago, describes the mission well:

The On Being show is the tip of an iceberg that’s been evolving for nearly two decades — with new depth and velocity in the post-2020 world. Every crisis of our age runs through fault lines of human hearts and well-being — pain and fear and dreams and hope. Work once imagined as “soft” is urgently pragmatic. Calming fear. Expanding imaginations. Resourcing social courage and creativity. Opening the moral questions of humanity hospitably to the seeker, the atheist, and the devoutly religious. Attending to the wholeness of every person: the life of the mind, the truth of the body, and the wild mystery of the human spirit.

Some of the things Krista mentioned and discussed during her recent conversation with clinical psychologist Christine Runyan about the effects in and around our bodies of a year in a pandemic — physiologically, psychologically and spiritually — resonated strongly.

She said:

What I’ve also experienced as I look back on the year and its many chapters — the death of George Floyd, the racial reckoning and rupture, the drama of the election — it feels to me, in my work, in our work with colleagues, there was a lot of adrenaline that got generated because of things that were happening. And that’s quite apart from people having incredible losses and stresses in their lives, losing people and illnesses and [losing] jobs.

But you kept going. There was this energy source.

And then winter set in, the election was over — and all of the energy flowed out of my body. It’s not just that I have felt low in energy, I’ve felt disembodied, and like I’ll never be the same again, and I’ve talked to other people who feel that way too.

I get the feeling that this sensation is something shared by many of us, even if we’re not able to put it into words as precisely and generously as Krista manages here.

Later in the same show, she asked the question which, to me, might go to the heart of the struggles we find ourselves in.

What do we know about the effects on us as humans, as creatures, of what we’ve called “social distancing”, and what that entails — the isolation, the lack of touch, the lack of seeing and being seen in a world of masks?

We are, more than anything, social creatures. It’s not just that we might miss the often empty or inauthentic or even hedonistic thing often called “socialising” — marking the end of a working week in crowded bars with a row of beers lined up beside the taps — but it’s that we miss being social.

Sitting alone in a coffee shop doing a steady trade, being apart but together, or welcoming a neighbour for a cup of tea at the kitchen table.

Walking down a city street that gently hums with activity.

Lining up at the turnstiles of a sports arena or music venue, allowing yourself to anticipate the possibility of witnessing a transcendent moment in the minutes or hours ahead.

Getting together in real time and physical space, whether that’s at the office whiteboard, on the organising committee of a community project, or at tennis or golf or martial arts or a thousand other athletic pursuits that are only really possible in the company of others.

Over the past year, our in-built need for togetherness has been denied. We are encouraged, or compelled, to shelve this species-old part of us for the greater good. It is a stark trade-off, and the only thing that’s guaranteed is that down either path we lose something vital.

You don’t have to be extrovert to enjoy the company of others. Even the most introvert of us can feel the joy of quiet togetherness.

All of us have missed that, I think.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that whenever this pandemic is finally brought under control, by further vaccine developments and supply chain improvements and treatment breakthroughs and changed behaviours, that we should emerge from it and immediately roll back time to engage in precisely the same things we engaged in before.

From depression and obesity to ocean pollution and climate change, many of the choices we made in the past were making us sick, and making the planet sick.

Is it too much to yearn for a future when we can have the solace of comfort in being alone with ourselves, and also to have the chance to be comfortable together in the eternally bubbling, energetic oneness of us all?

I hope not.

I look forward to a future when I am even more comfortable alone with myself, and also have the chance for the regular energising nourishment provided by the anonymous company and fleeting presence of others going about their own lives.