Human beings are social creatures, pack animals we are. From high society to gangs, we travel in packs. While there are lone wolves, we are not normally isolated. Until now.
The pandemic has wrought so much damage and destruction to our health, our communities and our economies. But it has also damaged our psyche. For the first time in my life, I am potentially a danger to others. It’s also hard to complete simple tasks such as a trip to the grocery without viewing everyone as a threat.
I grew up in a port city which provided no shortage of threats from fellow humans. I have a finely tuned sixth sense of danger and listen to that inner voice when the hair stands up on the back of my neck. It’s part of being a social creature—recognizing when someone poses a threat before any overt action. It doesn’t happen often but just like the wolf, you feel someone close behind before you hear, see or even smell them. It’s a handy skill.
But what happens when that skill is in high alert upon any human contact? When that cute young guy at the grocery could kill you with his breath. It’s a bit overwhelming when everyone is a threat. Here in the south, we’re generally friendly folk. We talk to everyone everywhere. I’ve had major life discussions with total strangers over how to pick ripe honeydew and giggles over types and brands of canned tomatoes and the dishes we make from them. I even once joined in a trio of middle-aged rock ‘n rollers humming and dancing in front of the bulk spices. While many take their new acquisitions home to indulge in the Joy of Cooking, I indulge in the Joy of Humans. That joy is missing these days.
Masked communication is challenging. Others can’t see my kind smile behind my mask. I’ve been practicing smiling with my eyes but it’s hard. I wink at people now and some smile back with their eyes but some make a wider circle around me than six feet. I’m trying the respectful nod or slight bow and it seems to be understood. It says I acknowledge you in an honorable way in the condition we’re in. I wonder if I will bow when I am maskless.
Here in Pandemia, the crisis has brought out the best and the worst of us. Unfortunately, the worst is on full display from every screen in your possession while the best is often hidden from mass audience view. But you can see it everywhere if you look. A nightly stroll around the neighborhood with my canine in tow (or more likely I am in tow) shows many more people walking the hood, at least 15 feet apart. Front yards are graced with strategically placed outdoor chairs for visiting neighbors. I see more people on their front porches waving and saying “stay well” to passersby. Neighbors are checking up on neighbors, especially those who live alone. I had homemade masks left in my mailbox from a neighbor. Unsolicited care is the best kind. It’s all a warm hug of community.
How will we open up again? I’m not talking about opening our businesses or schools. I’m talking about opening our hearts. Do we emerge from our national hibernation as flocks in graceful flight or as singular turtles peeking from our shells (apologies to the zoologists for my intraspecies illustration.) I’m betting on flocks.