There is such a thing as society: Locked down and opening up

I genuinely never imagined that I would quote Boris Johnson, and I’m certainly not doing so for the sake of putting forward a personal political affiliation. But, in a recent public statement, Johnson said that the Covid-19 crisis has proved one thing, which is there really is such a thing as society. Over the past weeks, one important change that I’ve seen taking place is a radically increased need to reach out to friends and family across the globe. Zoom, Whatsapp, HouseParty, FaceTime and Skype have been set ablaze as we seek to reconsolidate our bonds with our personal diaspora of loved ones. People, at least in the world in which I live, have become more aware than ever before of the preciousness of their bonds with each other. With the frustration of separation have come a renewed openness to sharing ourselves, and inviting others more closely into our lives.

Part of how I understand this is that we are all aware of a shared global suffering. For some, this suffering has come in the form of illness and loss. For others, it exists as a deep anxiety, a sense of dread about the impact of the Covid-19 on our personal, professional, financial and broader social lives. For some, and particularly at this time of national lockdown and further social distancing, it is a time of loneliness and separation anxiety. Some of us are overwhelmed by the too-much-too-soonness of this illness, and in the face of that traumatic awareness we feel utter helplessness. Regardless of the extent to which we feel impacted by Covid-19, and in spite of the fact that we might all have very different qualities of emotional response, we all share an awareness that there is something out there over which we have no control, and in response to that thing we’re all bobbing up and down and the waves of hope and dread.

In the time since the emergence of this crisis, one overwhelming reaction which I’ve been aware of is the impulse to show solidarity, and to send out in the world of others the sense that we are there for them. Overwhelmingly, and more so than I am used to, there is a deep concern for the vulnerable. The elderly, the impoverished, those with compromised immunities; these are the people we’re concerned about, and at times, more concerned than we are for ourselves. There is a deep worry for our elderly parents, which actually seems to be reaffirming the bonds with our parents. I am seeing Facebook groups popping up which are focused on providing community support. I’m hearing the bellows of my neighbours at 8pm every day, as their shout out their deep appreciation to those who are providing essential services during this time of lock down.

Aside from the presence of positive sentiments towards others, such as solidarity, appreciation and unselfish concern, there is the absence of opportunities to feel negative sentiments. Our daily lives provide us with countless opportunities to feel aggravated by others, and to deliberately aggravate them. We are incited to subthreshold anger more often than we think, in our efforts to navigate the challenges of our demanding lives. Whether it’s frustration with the self or the other, living out there in the world often moves us to feelings of frustration, which we can so easily act out in aggressive ways. There is a kind of peacefulness that flows from being deprived of these kinds of opportunities, and a sense of relief from the depletion on our mental and bodily energy which occurs when we feel aggravated. Together with this, there is a sense of greater comfort as a human being amongst other human beings, and an openness to the other as a human being just like us. The experience of feeling less conscious of the kinds of minor threats which could challenge us on a daily basis, frees us up to think in more hospitable and open ways about ourselves and others. Through this, there can be a greater sense of sharing a common humanity, especially in times when we are unified by global suffering. When there is a sense of common purpose, society is bound together. Now more than I my living memory, we as human beings are bound by a common hope, need and ambition.

Grief is one of the outstanding elements of our current experience. People are confronted with grief about the sudden loss of beloved friends, family members, lovers. We are affected by the loss of important global figures. We are frightened of further loss, and grieving a time in life when we weren’t forced to live with the consciousness of possible loss in our futures. There is also a kind of loss that is linked with trauma, in which we are confronted with the loss of our delusions of safety inside and out. This is a traumatic experience, because it confronts us with a cumulative sense across time that our bodies are profoundly unprepared and deeply exposed to risk; the loss is of a delusion that we are prepared for the challenges of life, no matter what. We are also confronted with the loss of affectionate physical contact with those close to us, from whom we are separated in this time. The line between loss and separateness is very fine, and our feelings of separateness, which blur into loneliness and estrangement, can fill us with a sense of loss. There is in this time a mass experience of global grieving. My belief is that this is a uniting force, and I am seeing indications of this in the strong and consistent reinforcements of reciprocal social affection and care. In my mind, this is the primary gain, and I think, maybe, if we fix our thoughts on this gain, it could carry us through this difficult and uncanny time in our lives.

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