Staying close while we are socially distant and after

In the face and wake of COVID-19, there are legitimate concerns: the “what abouts.” What about jobs? What about paychecks? What about access to health care? What about groceries? What about our families? What about our neighbors? What about . . . ?

One of my biggest concerns about the new coronavirus is how it may change our relationships. We are a social culture. Despite our increasing tendency to bury ourselves in our devices, we still work together, live together, play together, go to school together and do church together.

That last one is particularly important for many of us right now. Read each word: We … do … church … together. Church is not a solitary, isolated thing. Yet, here we are.

More important than what we do is who we are. We are made for relationships, for being social, for being together. It’s who we are. Having to stay away from people we normally spend our lives with cuts directly across our need to stay close—even if we’re introverts.

For years, though, we have been socially distancing ourselves as our addiction to ourselves and our devices grows and as our society becomes increasingly polarized. We just haven’t given that distancing the kind of attention a viral pandemic can generate.

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Yes, it’s still early. It’s not time to panic about our relationships, too—not that we need to panic about anything. But because it’s still early, now’s the time to give attention to how to stay connected while we are separated.

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Social distance cannot be the new normal. In being responsible citizens by maintaining social distance, we need to be sure we maintain social connection. It’s the nature of our connection and our need to be connected to one another that will outlast coronavirus.

Looking at separation

A pandemic is effective at generating fear, anxiety and panic. Afraid, anxious and panicked people can turn on one another, even in the best times. And this isn’t the best of times.

Thankfully, this isn’t the worst of times, either. We can’t lose sight of that.

But since this is not the best of times, we must be more attentive to how social distancing can add to fear, anxiety and panic. I say “add to” because fear and anxiety already are features of our society.

Distrust is one outcome of the sort of social distancing I mentioned above. Getting lost in ourselves and our devices and being pulled apart by polarization creates and feeds on distrust. When we don’t trust someone, we already are prone to pull back, to lash out, to be unkind or disrespectful toward that person, to hoard for ourselves or to cut off others. But distrust cannot build a community, a society or a kingdom.

If we already are distancing from each other, the social distancing we are asked to do now could pull us away from the positive and balancing influences we need to keep our communities together … unless we are mindful of the risk and work intentionally to stay close while we are physically apart.

Intentionally staying connected

How can we maintain our connection while we maintain our distance?

Thankfully, many of us have become adept at connecting digitally. Unfortunately, we already have allowed ourselves to be shaped negatively in the digital space. During these days of being physically separated, we need to reassess how we connect to each other online.

We need to make the most productive and positive use of social media platforms, communicating more hope than concern in our social media posts.

As others have noted, our digital devices give us the ability to continue “face to face” conversations and interactions even when we can’t be together in person. Video call someone.

I’ll never forget the first time I prayed with a group of people while on a video conference; that was more than 10 years ago. It felt odd, and I looked up a few times to watch the others pray because, well, I’d never prayed with others that way before.

I’ll also never forget my grandmother’s reaction to seeing and talking with my family by video chat. She was in Albuquerque, and we were in Virginia. She was amazed almost to the point of speechlessness. That also was more than 10 years ago. My grandmother was born in the 1920s and experienced many changes in the world. Praying together, talking together and staying connected by video is “old hat” for many now; let’s make the best use of it.

Churches with an online presence are positioned well to make good use of this period of social distancing. Many of them already provide video of their worship services and can continue to keep their congregations connected through corporate worship. In doing so, churches will need to be intentional about keeping corporate worship communal and not letting it slip into voyeurism.

Lingering effects of social distancing

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” That’s what they say, whoever “they” are. “They” also say long-distance relationships don’t last. Growing fonder doesn’t happen by accident. It must be sought after and worked toward. Long-distance relationships work when both parties trust each other and stay connected.

During social distancing, our devices will not bring us closer. They are only tools giving us the ability to stay close, if we will use them for that purpose. We are the responsible parties; we are the ones who must decide and do the work of staying close and growing closer, even though we must keep our distance for a while. This will not be easy.

Based on trends in civic participation, church attendance and other measures of social connection, we have been pulling apart for years. We have been losing trust in each other. These present days of social distancing, if we are not careful, can move us further in the direction we’re already going.

Or, as so many are saying, social distancing can make us better people, better communities and a better society if we will remember who we are made to be. We are made to be together, and there hasn’t been anything come along yet that has changed the way God made us to be.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at eric.black@baptiststandard.com or on Twitter at @EricBlackBSP. The views expressed are those solely of the author.

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