Transforming the Way We Relate

Last night, I posted a comment and question on Facebook: “Let’s have a long distance happy hour soon. Wine (or tequila or bourbon or…) and munchies via Zoom! Say when, people! Tomorrow?

Nine people initially responded in the affirmative; an additional four “liked” the post, suggesting to me that they, too, might be interested. So, I scheduled a Zoom video-conference for tomorrow evening and sent an announcement to group members who responded. I look forward to seeing how it goes, assuming people actually connect.

This afternoon, I will go to the building that houses our church to be recorded as I read a poem I wrote about this strange new reality that has been visited upon us by the novel coronavirus. No, that’s not true. The poem is not about the new reality. It is about our reaction and response to the new reality.  The poem is based, in large part, on my post of March 18, Life in the Times of Pestilence. In fact, I gave the same title to the poem and used some of the same phrases I wrote for that post.

I video-recorded the same poem for Wednesday Night Poetry last week (was it last week?); the person responsible for recording Sunday services (now in the absence of the congregation) asked me to send him the video file so he could incorporate it into the video for last Sunday’s service. But my video file apparently was not compatible with church video files and so could not be used. I was asked to come read the poem at church so the file could be used for next Sunday’s service.

These two experiences amplify the reality we have been experiencing for a short while. I suspect the necessary isolation and distancing will continue for a good while; it could be months. It is possible the coronavirus will impact our lives for years. The virus may reshape the ways in which we interact with others.

I remember thinking, not long after reading recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control about maintaining at least six feet of separation from other people, that the recommendation might be harder in some cultures than in others. There’s a term in sociology, proxemics, which is the study of humans’ use of space and the impact that population density has on social interactions. I suspect epidemiologists’ recommendations about personal distance may influence cultural norms on “personal space.” In North America, “acceptable” distance between acquaintances engaged in conversation is about four feet. Italians, on the other hand, tend to be comfortable with closer proximity, two to three feet. Consequently, I think it may be harder for Italians to adapt than for North Americans; but it’s apt to be a challenge for both cultures. And I wonder whether, in another ten years, both North Americans and Italians will have adapted to greater physical distance between themselves and others. Might the cylinders of their “personal space” grown larger to the point that those who study proxemics will be unable to measure any significance between the cultures?

Though physical distance might expand, we might witness a transformation in interpersonal video. Rather than seeing on screen what commonly is, today, an image of a person’s upper body, we might see close-ups of faces, so we can share the unmistakable changes in our expressions when we smile or laugh or frown. I can envision that expectations of technology might change; consumers may demand that computer cameras have the ability to zoom in and out. Why out? Think of the stereotype of Italians; their hand gestures are as much a part of their vocabulary as their words. It’s not a manufactured stereotype, by the way.

What if? What if? What if none of the transformations in the way we relate, physically, to one another come to pass? What if the virus subsides and disappears? What if this entire episode becomes just an ugly memory? No matter what happens, if we are intelligent beings, it will have changed the way we relate to one another as human beings. It will have taught us, for the umpteenth time since humans began walking on two legs, that we need one another. It will have taught us that the well-being of others, even those outside our immediate spheres, matters. It will have informed us that looking out after the interests of everyone (every creature, every living being, too) is the only way to survive as a species. It will have taught us, but will we have learned? As I often say, time will tell.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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