It has to end sometime. Twenty-twenty that is. What more can be mentioned about this troubling, tragic and confusing year that hasn’t already been said? Your humble scribe offers nothing here of earth shattering insight, but perhaps I can manage a few thoughts worth a sip or two of coffee or another favorite beverage as you read and consider something better to do. Like many of you, the annus horribilis that was 2020 seems to me to have passed in a whirlwind, or better still, a cyclone. The year began more unsettled than usual in America, which is saying something. This might be attributable to having a President who seems incapable of just having a quiet day, one without bombast, controversy, and cross-fire ridicule that dominates the daily news and where deemed safe, adult conversations.
I could recount the myriad of sub-crisis controversies that fired through the preceding months up to today, but I’d just as soon not. It would be too much like binge-watching a tag team of Air Disasters and Tragedies at Sea, where almost everyone dies and the survivors are left to tell the tale and question why they were spared. Anyway, these pale in comparison to the pandemic that continues to rage across many parts of the world, sickening millions, taking countless lives, upending economies and accelerating a societal disconnect and isolation that already seemed well in play. So let’s just say that if you’re still here, you get a gold star. You lived it, saw it, and dealt with it one way or the other. Life has always promised a ying and a yang, and this pandemic is no different. The important question is what is taught by it all and how do we think about and respond to it.
Retirement (also known as voluntary indolence) allows me ample time to observe the ebb and flow of daily life and reflect on how the pandemic has impacted human social interactions; our abilities to effectively communicate, feel and express empathy, as well as establish and maintain trust in others. In short, the things that grease the gears of sociability and glue us together as people. To varying degrees, we are all social beings who require a certain level of intercourse with others (no, I’m not referring to that type specifically) but the day to day interactions among humans that helps make the world go round. Shaking hands when greeting each other, holding the door for others as you run into Cumberland Farms for a cheap coffee and a scratch ticket, looking each other in the eye when speaking and noting facial expressions and body language for unsaid nuances of meaning. Add in maintaining appropriate boundaries of speech and behavior in the workplace, practicing patience with others and those golden human qualities once referred to as manners. Note that the words other or others appear six times in this paragraph, indicating the presence of someone outside of the self.
My sense is that many of these positive social attributes have been in decline for sometime, with the pandemic and accompanying “social distancing” rules only accelerating their erasure. I do not dispute these precautionary rules at all. During the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, isolation was one of the few means of slowing the wildfire of infections. It’s more than a fair trade, but will there be long-term, detrimental effects? Masked for safety, we currently step aside when encountering other people, eye contact is minimal and few stop just to chat on the sidewalk. Will these practices, when repeated for months at a time, establish a more fixed mindset of self-preservation in society? Will self become primary, and concern for the other be an afterthought that is mostly ignored?
The pandemic has also rocketed a quantum leap in telecommunications and a stunning reliance upon technology, resulting in the abandonment of many traditional worksites for people engaged in certain classes of work and the deterioration of traditional classroom learning. Work and social meetings resemble something once seen on a Jetsons cartoon of yesteryear. Computer screens have replaced faces of real people, imbuing voice with an electronic tone and reducing humans to a two-dimensional image. For many, this new normal is easy to navigate and a preferred way to communicate and work. For others, it’s a pesky, unsatisfying aggravation. Still others, by reason of their occupation, are exempted from participation in this new environment. If still employed, they operate on a traditional, person to person basis, experiencing first hand the widening class distinction and social differential in an economically skewed and politically divided nation.
I also believe that accelerated technology has resulted in a redoubling of group think, with people insulating themselves within their electronic bubbles, reinforcing their preferred notions and opinions, shutting out and shouting down divergent viewpoints they disagree with, all to the derogation of independent thought and the stunting of intellectual freedom. Modern life has revealed that technology has outpaced our abilities to think through all the effects it has had on our society, as well as how to effectively identify and limit the harmful ones. To where all this leads, I do not know.
There must be a plus side to all the mess somewhere, right? This pandemic, like all through history, will eventually end. Deaths will return to a pre-Covid level. Our face masks will come off, people will gather, the restaurants and other establishments that survived will return to greater capacity, schools will re-open and some of the people working at home will return to the businesses that employ them. But when the masks go back in the drawer, will people feel gratitude for their survival, or just remember the inconvenience imposed by the pandemic? Will we return to a more open, honest and personable manner of human interaction and cooperation? I am hopeful that this will be so, based mostly on my conviction that this is the only way that people and societies survive. No person and by extension, no society maintains itself indefinitely when isolated from others. We are created to cooperate with each other, difficult as that is at times. If we are able to recover this notion and behave accordingly, the year 2021 may truly be one to remember.
Happy New Year