I’ve had the good fortune these last few weeks to have my daughter and her husband here for a visit. It’s always wonderful to see them and doubly so after a long hard season of isolation and anxiety because of COVID-19.
Having them here made an immediate and welcome change. After six long months of just us, we suddenly had more people around the table. We had long conversations about their work and ours, projects we’d like to embark on, places we long to visit, plans for the future. We cooked together and played cards and swam and sailed and played tennis and went on long bike rides.
And it reminded me again and again of one of the vital things we are missing because of the virus – company. We have ventured out a few times to see friends in their yards or on the beach. We chat with neighbors at the mailbox. But until the kids, as I still call them, came to visit, we haven’t had a regular dose of close, warm companionship.
I often think of those mothers standing in their yards in Boston or New York in the early centuries in this country, waving goodbye to daughters as they embarked on journeys in covered wagons across this vast country with nothing but the hope for a letter to ease anxiety. I don’t know how they bore it. It’s hard enough saying goodbye at an airport, knowing we can facetime as soon as they get through the gate.
Chemists tell us that these bonds – of family, of friendship – are chemically based, that being close to people we love floods us with oxytocin (known as “the cuddle hormone”), giving us feelings of safety and warmth and contentment. Sociologists tell us that this sort of bonding – whether as family, friends, teammates or as a tribe – gives us a sense of identity and belonging, also very comforting feelings.
However we parse it, human beings are social animals and that instinct and need is being thwarted every day by a disease that requires us to stay apart and masked to stay safe.
I suspect this is one reason we are in such a struggle as a nation this political season. Lacking companionship, many of us are establishing our identity by aligning with political parties and slogans and causes. We are finding solace by joining tribes of strangers and online movements.
Unfortunately these allegiances are often serving to increase our separation from others and ramp up our anxiety.
And while I’m not suggesting that we tune out the news and the campaigns – ignorance of the events that will shape our futures is never an answer - I am suggesting that we think about the company we are keeping, whether it’s teams, tribes, causes or movements.
True companionship is a two-way street – we open up and connect to one another. True companionship doesn’t demand allegiance to every action or opinion, only the time and patience to hear each other out. And it certainly doesn’t ask us to join in vilifying or shunning the people or movements who don’t agree with us.
Instead it asks that we be curious about one another and open to learning something new.
I had a lovely experience the other day when I met a young writer who was helping me run a writers’ forum I founded. As this was Zoom, her name was typed under her photo. And it was a gloriously long and complex name that seemed to me with my limited knowledge to be from some part of Africa. So I asked her if one of her parents were from Africa, thinking they might be recent immigrants. And she very kindly took me on a bit of a tour of her history, telling me she didn’t know which country her people hailed from because they had been forcibly brought to the Caribbean as slaves. And that her nearest kin were from those islands and that they had preserved some of their ancestry in the names they carried.
And then she asked me where my people were from.
No one ever asks me that. I’m fair skinned and blue-eyed and no one in America ever asks me where I come from. So I really appreciated the question and told her that I was in fact second generation on one side from farming communities in Sweden. And we had a wonderful conversation about immigration and identity and our commitment or lack thereof to America. She in fact is more committed to staying here than I am. So it was a very interesting conversation and we are beginning to be friends.
Now this could have gone a whole other way – and it has. I have lost friends who felt I was ham-handed in how I wrote or talked about race. And I have left friendships because of racist comments or actions I couldn’t tolerate.
Through all these rifts and connections, I have tried to be conscious and respectful and tolerant of what other people feel. Because I am very aware that the relationships people have with ideas and movements can be as closely held and ardently defended as loyalties toward human beings. Especially now. Lacking human connection, we are doubling down on ideological connections.
And it’s exciting. We are in an historic period and have all kinds of opportunities to rethink our attitudes and commitments – to race and reparations, to LGBTQ rights and the meaning of transitioning, to gun rights and the meaning of the Second Amendment, to women’s rights and Roe v Wade, to the environment and the needs of small businesses, to states’ rights and the balance of power, to taxes and redistribution, to the home front and the international arena.
At times it feels like everything’s up for grabs.
It won’t be easy to change and grow and we will all make mistakes. I meditate and pray on this every day, asking to be open and tolerant and willing to learn more about things that baffle me or seem just plain wrong but are ardently defended by groups of people.
Because if there is one thing I have learned, if lots of people have aligned with an idea or a movement, there is a human reason. And it behooves me to be open to what it might be. One because I might learn something. And two because I might find a new friend. And in this lonely season of Covid, I need all the company I can get.
(Thank you so much for all your emails. Reach me at WelcomeToThePandemic@gmail.com. And find me on Twitter at @epagenyc or on Facebook at ElizabethPage.)