Two months ago, I would have said that among the most troubling trends in society was increased social isolation. Too many people seem more interested in their phones than real conversations with friends and families. Kids seem to prefer video games over pretends and playgrounds. Televisions are ubiquitous in restaurants, sending the message that the lives depicted on screens are inevitably more interesting than our own.
I worried about this for myself and my family. Working remotely for an office-less organization, I felt that on too many days I lacked much meaningful human interaction outside my immediate family. We’ve moved frequently so we haven’t developed rich and lasting relationships with neighbors. I nagged my kids to keep off of phones and computers, and away from the television, while wishing for the kind of rooted community that I associate with an earlier era.
But now that we’ve actually been forced to confine ourselves to our home, I’ve realized just how much I did interact with people day-to-day before and how much that meant to me, even when they don’t involve close friendships. I miss the chit-chat with other parents when I picked up my kids from lacrosse practice. I miss talking to people while my preschooler hangs up his coat and backpack. I miss teachers and coaches, and the waitress at our local Irish bar whose name I don’t know, but who is consistently friendly and upbeat. I miss live music and the camaraderie of clapping in unison with strangers to songs we all know. I miss going to church and shaking people’s hands hello, even when I didn’t know their names.
After COVID-19 shut down their schools, my kids were almost instantly tired of television and video games. They miss friends, teachers, and the rides to and from school. They’ve discovered that, if they didn’t love classroom lectures, they like them even less on Zoom. They want sports practices, field trips, and birthday parties again.
It’s an old adage that you don’t know what you had until it’s gone; and that’s certainly true for many of us facing social isolation today. I had overlooked how rich the civil society around me actually was before COVID-19 brought the world to a halt. We weren’t all just technology addicts, but were an active and vibrant people who enjoy face-to-face contact and a multitude of relationships.
A silver lining of COVID-19 has been watching the uncountable acts of kindness, big and small, as people help each other weather this pandemic: Neighbors helping neighbors; young people picking up groceries for seniors; food drives, fundraisers, and the donation of money and medical supplies. After an era that seemed defined by partisanship, it’s nice to have a common enemy that doesn’t care about party affiliation. The media may try, but most people seem uninterested in trying to tally up points scored in any political game.
Yet thinking back to that pre-COVID era (i.e. about 5 weeks ago), the truth seems to be that — while the acts of kindness witnessed during this extraordinarily challenging time of disease and forced isolation are certainly inspiring and notable — really people were always much kinder to each other than you would have thought if you spent your time scrolling through Twitter or watching the news. When people interacted with each other face-to-face, mostly they were never thinking about how that person votes, or judging them on any of the other factors that are supposed to divide us politically and as people. Most people are quite nice and try to do right by the people around them.
That’s an important foundation that we can build on. When we are allowed to reemerge from our homes and resume our busy, interconnected lives, we will better appreciate the people around us and the communities we’ve created. Of course, we can all try to do better, be kinder and more attentive to people, rather than our screens. We should also remember that what we see on the screens, whether that’s television or Twitter, isn’t reality. Our lives may not be as action packed as the latest Netflix thriller but people also aren’t as cynical, snarky, or cruel as the news on social media suggests either. People are mostly decent and create pleasure for others merely by being a friendly or considerate presence. That’s something I’d overlooked before COVID-19 quarantines and look forward to appreciating more in the future.