“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” (Dorothy Day)
As I’ve strolled through my neighborhood in the past few years—a walk that within fifteen minutes can take me to my favorite bookshop in the center of town or out along the banks of the river that runs through the Smith College campus or into a tree-studded park with winding paths and shaded benches for reading—I’ve felt the increasing reticence of people I encounter to speak or even make eye contact (let alone smile) in passing. Most of the “Boomers” still nod, say hello. Respond to my “I’m loving the sun today” or offer some observation of their own. But the under-60 crowd avoids such “terrifying” exchanges by turning their eyes to the pavement, and the local college students stare fixedly at their smartphones with such ferocity I’m amazed their gaze doesn’t blaze a hole in the screen! It takes a lot of energy to avoid other people, to act as if the fellow human being passing two feet from you does not exist. I pity them. It’s clear from their furrowed brow, they are not enjoying this pretense. I long to ask: How will we ever fix the world and make it a more humane place if we can’t even nod to each other in passing? But I don’t ask. They have made their wishes clear.
Or have they? Does any of us ever really wish to sever contact with our fellow humans? To view others with distrust or fear?
The Weight of Depression
If laughter is the shortest distance between two people, avoidance of others is a cumbersome ball and chain. And it may be making many of us ill. Emotionally, psychologically, even physically because the mind informs the body and the stress of building a virtual wall to keep other people at a ‘safe” distance can take a heavy toll on both. So why do so many of us seem intent on defending that wall of silence?
It’s no secret that cases of depression skyrocketed during COVID, nearly tripling in the early months of 2020. Sadly, that’s to be expected during traumatic events. But it’s also expected that the mental/emotional toll such crises engender will peak and then drop off. Only this time they haven’t. New research from Boston University School of Public Health reveals that the 2020 increase has not only persisted BUT escalated. Nearly one in three Americans, BUSPH reports, now suffers from depression.
Yes, there was a brief moment in the Spring of 2021—after the election ousted TheRUMP and the COVID vaccine rollout opened up the world a bit—when people seemed lighter, our unmasked faces revealing relief, hope; when people smiled at each other in passing. But, quickly, fears of COVID were replaced by worries over the state of democracy and the growth of fascism around the globe. Increasing police violence against black citizens, GOP threats to LGBTQ persons, the death of ROE, and a flurry of laws from right-wing controlled states: If we don’t approve of the candidates Americans vote for, our Republican legislatures will just change the outcome to one we do like.
The Key to Easing Anxiety
Psychotherapist Kerry Malawista’s recent op-ed in the Baltimore Sun identifies a new complaint she is witnessing among a rapidly rising number of patients, a complaint one client labeled “Democracy Anxiety Disorder”—grief for America and one’s own future in it. Malawista notes that while many people are in denial about the threats to America and the planet, millions more “cannot look away from what is happening to our country and our freedoms.” She asks, “How do we offer psychological help when we know the danger is real, not imagined?” In response to that question, Malawista notes, “Here we have some agency, because in the face of a threat to good government and democracy itself, power rests in voting and volunteering in grassroot efforts.” In other words, we must work with other people to build something positive, to make a better, safer, more inclusive world. As Malawista observes, “engaging in constructive work with others eases anxiety, offers hope.” But to do that, we must talk to each other, not look away. Stop using our phones as a shield from the world.
There are some real challenges to doing that. The pandemic and the resulting greedy grab by corporations to cash in on the moment—downsize workers, reap bigger profits, consolidate market share—have literally changed the face of America. In many places, especially smaller cities and towns, the center of public life—our downtown gathering places, locally-owned shops and restaurants—was gutted by the pandemic and has not come back. Empty storefronts line Main Street. In their place, an army of Amazon Prime vans brings virtually (no pun intended) all our material needs to our front door. Food delivery services like DoorDash and Grubhub do the rest. We stick our heads out, grab the stuff, return to our smartphones and streaming devices. On the surface, our needs appear to be taken care of, and with a minimum of effort. But what about our emotional needs? Our need for human connection?
“The need to connect socially with others is as basic as our need for food, water and shelter,” writes Matthew Lieberman, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral science at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (Crown Publishers). “It’s been baked into our operating system for tens of millions of years.”
Making Connections: Old Friends and New
As I mentioned in a note to last month’s post, Ed and I spent most of January in Barbados, a jaunt that has become an annual thing. A welcome reprieve from the cold, dark days of the New England winter. For three weeks, we lie on the beach—reading, swimming in the clear warm ocean waters, enjoying a rum punch or two. All to the best of reggae music. It truly is a healing experience. Literally. The on-again, off-again UTI symptoms I’d experienced for the previous 14 months vanished completely the day we arrived and never returned. But the most healing of all is the people we meet there. Barbadians are among the most open, welcoming people I have ever encountered.
You don’t just “take a cab” in Barbados. You converse with the driver, swap stories about family, the tastiest eateries, local politics. At The Boatyard in Bridgetown—our favorite beach!—you don’t just pay for the day’s pass (umbrella, chairs, a food and drink allowance), you talk to everyone on the staff. Trade jokes with R., ask T. how his plans for opening a coffee shop are going, chat with N. about the work he does teaching magic tricks to kids.
Out for dinner in the evening, you exchange stories of family holiday gatherings with A., your waiter—the number one reason you always come back to this restaurant (and that’s saying something because the menu is amazing)—and promise to send him your recipe for the French Apple Pie he wants to try. You sing along with the steel pan band to “Sweet Caroline” and “YMCA”—with about sixty other locals and tourists at a favorite beachside cafe. The same cafe you’ll take Boatyard friend T. to for dinner and music, as he’ll later take you for beer and karaoke several blocks away.
Yes, Ed and I love the sun, surf and sand, but one of the great joys of our annual visits to the island is seeing familiar faces and catching up on each other’s lives. As the poet William Butler Yeats said: “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.” And there are more people to be met on this island besides Barbadians—Bajans as the locals refer to themselves. A world of people, in fact.
Icebreakers: Take the Plunge
On the many beaches that encircle Barbados, people gather from around the globe. Some are locals, of course, but a sizeable number are from cruise ships making a brief stopover, and many—like Ed and me—are vacationing on the island. Lots of Brits and Scots, even more Canadians, but also Italians, Spaniards, the French, the Dutch, Middle Easterners, Aussies. And that’s the short list.
So here we all are, lined up on the beach, no more than a couple of feet between umbrella/chair set-ups. Or splashing happily in the ocean together. In such an environment, it’s more unnatural not to talk to each other. Making contact is just a matter of commenting on some aspect of the scene. Finding an icebreaker.
I found mine in the ocean. Though the water is reasonably warm, there’s just something about committing to that final all-in plunge. Ed dives right in, but I always linger a few minutes, talking myself into that leap—The water will feel warm within a minute or two. I’ll be okay. I can’t just stand here—until, at last, I throw myself into the waves. Of course, it’s always better once you do, but I had observed that, like me, many women hesitate as the water rises above their waist. I don’t know if there’s a biological reason for this, but I began using it as a way to connect, empathizing over how hard it is to go all the way. Laughing at my own hesitation. Yes, yes, my fellow swimmers nodded. Suddenly we were talking—about anything and everything. Sometimes, as with one couple from Milan, in an exchange of broken English (theirs, really good) and broken Italian (mine, really bad). But I’ve seldom found language to be a barrier (in part, admittedly, because most people speak at least a little English and many speak it quite well).
Even when the overlap in lingo is virtually zip, if you want to make a friendly gesture, there’s often a way. We were in a New York City hotel once and the elevator was kaput—waiting for the repair people. Standing in the lobby, I noticed a young woman repeatedly pressing the elevator button. Approaching her, I said, “It’s not working.” She shook her head. “Russian,” she replied. Wracking my brain, I produced the one Russian word I possess: “Nyet.” “Ahh.” She nodded her understanding and we both started laughing.
Kids and grandkids are another easy way to get a conversation going. Last year, we saw a girl of four splashing about in the shallow water. Her sister, age two, watched avidly, but hung back despite Mom’s coaxing. The game changed, though, when big sister came out to the shore and started lobbing small pebbles and seashell fragments into the surf. Then the little one went crazy—picking up everything not nailed down and tossing it with joyous abandon into the ocean, in the process getting thoroughly soaked. “Guess she’s been converted,” I said. “Oh yeah,” the woman replied. “Whatever big sister does…” And with that, we were off and running.
Survival: It’s Up to Us
It really is a small world. On Alleyne’s Beach, the step into the ocean is a bit of a drop off and a little rocky for the first several feet. Getting in is easy, but getting out with the waves rolling in behind you can be tricky. On one of our visits there, a man helped Ed manage the last couple of feet to shore. Which started us talking. He and his wife were from London. I said it was my favorite place in the world and had been ever since I was a student for a semester at the University of London. He asked which college of the university. “Bedford College, 1976,” I said. “Me, too!” he exclaimed. “I haven’t met anyone for years who was there at that time.” Well, there you have it. Forty-six years later and four-thousand miles away—a connection!
These little conversations, light-hearted and fleeting though they are, unite us. Make us smile, laugh. Lift our spirits. But you don’t have to go to Barbados to have them. We are surrounded wherever we are by others who dream and fear and hope, just as we dream and fear and hope. Edward Said, the controversial scholar who founded the academic field of postcolonial studies, wrote: “Survival, in fact, is about the connection between things.”
I would say, simply, survival is about the connection between people.