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Social togetherness is not lost

These are unprecedented times. COVID-19 is bringing the entire world to its knees in disbelief and fear. On the other hand, it is also exposing tremendous talents and creativity. All countries in the world are battling COVID-19. For the past few days, I have been studying the response of countries and noted that governments instituted some form of curfew, emergency orders or lockdown to stem the spread of this deadly virus.

All churches in The Bahamas temporally closed their doors to in-house worship and have migrated to online worship periods. In many cases, the attendance of these online services has equaled or surpassed the attendance of in-house services. We are happy that churches are resuming some form of face-to-face worship while following the health guidelines.

How could a virus spread so fast around the world within just a few weeks? My research reveals that on January 12, 2020, there was only one country confirming COVID-19 cases. Now, five months later, every country is impacted. Epidemiologists and other experts in disease prevention indicate that the spread has been due to close social interaction of human beings.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines community spread as: “The spread of a contagious disease to individuals in a particular geographic location who have no known contact with other infected individuals or who have not recently traveled to an area where the disease has any documented cases.” This is occurring in The Bahamas today. Hence, here, and around the world, medical experts are saying that the fastest way to end the spread of the virus is to cease mingling with people in public and to wear a mask if you must go out. The term being used is “social distancing”.

Preferably, I think the better term is “physical distancing”. Why? Because during this time, although we cannot see each other, we need to keep people emotionally or socially close for support, encouragement and strength. I remember as a teenager, having more than 54 pen pals. These are equivalent to “friends” on the modern social media platforms. We got acquainted via the simple “snail mail” by writing letters and sending photos to each other. I became socially or emotionally close to many of them, although we were literally hundreds or thousands of miles apart. Social togetherness is the result of sharing things in common, unique interests and goals.

Today, although we should not, for our own health, be physically close (within each other’s private space), we can still be socially close with the use of the phone and social media. We can actually hear and see each other for the cost of a few cents or at no cost at all. Conceptually, love can also “spread” through our communities, churches and towns the same way. Physical isolation does not mean social or emotional isolation or spiritual apathy. While we can physically get together in small groups, it will be a while before things will go back to normal.

When the term “social distancing” started to circulate the globe as a means to prevent the spread of COVID-19, my mind went back to the 1970s when I was a student at Northern Caribbean University, Jamaica. Male and female students were strongly advised not to be closer than three feet apart, even if they were dating. It seems as though the leaders acquainted physical proximity with intimacy.

Interestingly, in 1966, anthropologist Edward T. Hall introduced the term proxemics to describe set measurable distances between people as they interact. He noted that there are four distances or spaces when we interact with people. There is the “intimate distance” for embracing, touching or whispering (less than six inches to 18 inches); the “personal distance” for interactions among good friends (1.5 to four feet); the “social distance” for interactions among acquaintances (four to 12 feet) and the “public distance” used for public speaking (12 to 25 feet or more).

Why would you allow someone in your “intimate space” when that person should not proceed beyond your “social space”? It made sense then. More than ever, physical distancing is needed. In the early days, physical distancing came out of a foolish belief that getting too close will automatically stir up illicit behavior. Some parents even made their daughters believe that if boys touched them, they would get pregnant. This kind of teaching about physical distancing emotionally crippled many budding adults. Today, however, due to COVID-19, the requirement to keep at least six feet apart, which Edward T. Hall calls “social distance”, will not cripple us – it will literally save our lives.

Yet, I must remind you that physical distance does not mean social distance. The internet has brought on a far new dimension to intimacy. With the use of modern technology, we can, without fear, allow someone in our “social space”. Although miles apart, we can still be spiritually and emotionally intimate. We can care for our family, the elderly, sick and the lonely. Let’s keep socially close.

• Barrington Brennen is a counseling psychologist and marriage and family therapist. Send your questions to question
@soencouragement.org or call 242-327-1980 or visit www.soencouragement.org.

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