The Coronavirus and Friendship

In recent weeks, many people have been losing friends, questioning their friends’ morals, or finding their friendships strained because friends are taking social distancing less seriously than they are.

“Friends Are Breaking Up Over Social Distancing”
Ashley Fetters, The Atlantic, April 2020

The excellent Atlantic article quoted above is about how people are ending friendships over differences in attitudes regarding the pandemic and social distancing and how to avoid it. It’s well-written and worth the read. As I was reading through it, I thought of my own friends and family and it got me wondering why this is happening, and what, if anything, we can do about it. What matters, and what doesn’t?

The last two months have been a lesson in human nature. This novel coronavirus is hitting our humanity. There is a lot that is unknown about this virus, and we humans freak out about the unknown. And we freak out differently.

Social distancing is a pretty simple concept. If we stay away from each other, the virus can’t spread, and if it can’t spread, then eventually the virus will abate. Social distancing is the method we in America have decided will slow the growth of the number of cases and will give us a fighting chance to find treatments and eventually find a vaccine.

Everyone values social distancing differently. I have friends who are hunkered up at home, getting stuff delivered, and who do not go out at all. Personally, I shop for things we need and I wear a mask and try to stay away from people, and I wash my hands and have hand-sanitizer at the ready. But I have friends who poo-poo this whole thing, do not do any social distancing, and get together for social activities, despite stay-at-home orders. The Atlantic article addresses these differences in attitudes toward social distancing and how it can end friendships.

There is a factor that I believe makes these differences more perilous: we are not seeing our friends in person. We may talk on the phone, or even from time to time put together Zoom meetings, but more likely we are interacting on social media and/or chat programs. We try to understand each other and try to get others to understand our points of view, but we are not doing it in person. We are not talking to each other. We are looking at flickering letters on a screen with an occasional picture. We are isolated.

We are human. We are meant to be together, in person. We go to coffeeshops or restaurants by ourselves just to be with people, even people we don’t know, even if we are introverts. When we are with friends, we can have conversations, or we can watch a movie or concert, or just hang out. If we have conversations, they are less important than just the fact of being together.

And when we do have conversations, the conversations are immediate. We don’t just talk; rather, we see, we “read the room,” we are aware of body language and tone, and we see all these social cues because we are together. Tempers may flair on controversial topics, but we see this happening in real time, and we generally know when to back off and change the subject: “how about those Dodgers, eh?” A blown-up discussion can be diffused, and the clouds clear. Because we are together and because we are friends and we love each other, even when we disagree. It’s not about the conversation. It’s about being together, and about being friends.

No two people will agree on everything. Add more people to the mix, and the areas of agreement become fewer and fewer. This is life. This is human nature. Some disagreements are minor, such as whether pineapple belongs on a pizza. Some are fundamental, such as whether or not God exists. Friendship transcends these differences – it must, because no one agrees completely with anyone else.

Friendship endures because people are not their opinions. Opinions and beliefs can change over time as you live your life. You may find that, hey! Pineapple is not so bad. Or that, yes, you can make barbecue with beef as well as pork. Or that the death penalty may not be such a great idea. If you change your mind are you a different person? No. If anything, you are more complete. Or perhaps more jaded. But you are still fundamentally you.

A person is a soul put on this earth to try to get along and do the best he or she can, trying to do good in a world that’s hard to know what doing good is. Everyone is imperfect and is imperfectly dealing with life’s trials and struggles. Life goes on with its tragedies and victories, and we in our imperfections do what we can to do the best we can. Every person is on their own epic journey. Each person’s journey is worthy of a novel.

I believe that when you come across someone and get to know their core goodness, that person can become a friend regardless of superficial beliefs or opinions. You recognize the genuineness of their soul, and that’s what matters. Friendship is therefore honoring and respecting your friends’ souls, regardless of their opinions or beliefs.

Enter social media and enter the isolation in which social media puts us. Social media connects us, but it only does so through words on a screen, intermingled with pictures and memes. Social media gives the appearance of connection, but not the reality of connection. It is a cliché that Facebook and Instagram show the highlight reel of our lives. But it’s true. Even when true grief is shared on social media, real connection is not there. You are not there in person to hold someone who just lost their husband or child. All you can do is type “so sorry for your loss” and press Enter. Words on a flickering screen.

Social media forces us to write. Worse, it forces us to write in short bursts scattershot to a multitude rather than in long letters written to an individual or to a family. Writing is difficult in the best of circumstances when you have the space and time to fully flesh out what you really want to convey. A good writer can capture emotions and convey genuineness and can console a person to the point where it is as if they are in the room with you, consoling you in your grief, and easing your pain. Ninety-nine years ago, William Allen White, the editor of the Emporia Gazette in Emporia, Kansas, wrote an obituary for his young daughter who died in an accident. It is an amazing piece. Here is a father, writing about his daughter who was taken away too soon, and he was able to wring out the grief completely and leave us with hope and love. It’s one of my favorite pieces of literature. The singer and songwriter John Prine died just a few weeks ago, taken by COVID-19, and his death hit me hard. And yet a song he wrote called “When I Get to Heaven” made my own grief easier to bear. I can see him up there smoking his nine-mile-long cigarette, and it makes me smile. William Allen White and John Prine are writers, and as writers, they can take the insane complexity of humanity and put it into words. They are exceptional because they could write so well.

However, most people are not writers. And yet social media forces us to write, and worse, to write in small tweet-sized bursts. It is impossible to convey humanity and connection in tweet-sized bursts.

And now we are confronted with existential problems none of us have seen in our lifetimes. We are enduring events that have changed our lives in an incredibly short period of time. Over a million and a half people in this country have been sickened by a disease that we didn’t even know existed at the beginning of the year. As of this writing, one hundred thousand people have perished in the United States, a third of a million world-wide, all in just a few months. Because we have to fight this disease, over thirty-eight million people in the US have lost their jobs just in the last two months. Thirty-eight million! That is unbelievable. And in this period of true human suffering, because this disease spreads easily by human physical contact, we have been asked to stay apart from each other. To be isolated. To stay home, stay out of school and out of work, stay away from parks, from theaters, sports events, and even from our friends’ houses. Even from our loved-ones’ funerals.

We humans need physical, in-person, interaction. Even introverts like myself are missing real connection with people in person. This virus is forcing us to stop doing what we as humans must do: to be together. And this change happened in a flash.

We, as the human race collectively, do not have the full picture of exactly what this virus is and will do. We don’t know exactly how it spreads. We don’t know if someone who recovers is now immune. We don’t know if we can make a vaccine for it, and if we can, when it will be available. We don’t know exactly how to treat COVID-19. Experts who dedicated their lives to epidemiology and virology and emergency medicine do not yet have a handle on this, and that creates a huge gap of knowledge that we humans cannot tolerate. We need to know, and we need to know now! But we don’t know, and because we don’t know, we are prone to grasping at straws. And there are people who just love to provide those straws, even if they have to invent them. What we do know is, we are all affected by this, and we want it to stop.

While we are all facing this existential threat, we are all affected in different ways. The coronavirus is the root of this threat, but it spawns existential threats of its own: Isolation and lack of connection. Uncertainty. Conflicting messages. Loss of income and property. Loss of businesses, some of which will never reopen. Doubt about how it’s being addressed by society and the government. The daily increase of the number of people who died. This thing is hitting us from all sides, and it’s hitting us at our core values. We end up having different opinions about which type of hit is worse.

Except in cases of sociopathy, no one wants people to be sick or die. No one wants people to be out of work, or to lose their livelihood, or their home. Or their sanity. No one is trying to make a case for evil – certainly not our friends. Each of our friends wants to do the right thing, and address this in the best way they can. Each of us is operating on the data we have. Each of us is experiencing our own level of pain and desperation. And we will disagree on these existential threats that are unprecedented in our lifetimes, and which are hurting us now.

Because we can’t be together physically, we can’t do what we would normally do to work this out: argue at the dinner table, argue at the pub or cigar lounge or coffee shop, or argue in the public square. We can’t hug it out. We can’t even fight it out. Our human strength of working things out in person is not available to us. Even those people who are protesting stay-at-home orders in public aren’t working it out in public. The people they need to work it out with are at home. We are isolated from each other. Isolation, uncertainty, and the real threat to our lives are making us crazy, some of us more than others.

We try in earnest to figure out what is going on, to fill in the gaps, to find a way to get through this, and to disseminate what we think are the best ways to get us back on track. And we can’t do it in person.

What are we left with? Social media. Where we as mostly non-writers are trying to work out core-value fears in texts, tweets, and memes, broadcasted out to the world.

The best writers write thousand-word opinion pieces rather than try to make their points in one hundred and forty characters. Forcing important thoughts into a brief paragraph or meme squeezes out the nuance and complexity of the issue. Our opinions cannot be fully expressed in a tweet. Instead of a post being exactly what we mean, it becomes kinda what we mean – and it can and will miss the mark. It is a shell of what we really believe, because we are complex beings, not paper dolls. This inadequate shell of a post becomes a straw man when someone argues against it, to the point where we argue past each other, leaving us to struggle to explain what we really meant, sometimes to people we don’t even know. We are all arguing from a position of doing the right thing, but we differ on what “doing the right” thing is. We are forced to use small-paragraph bludgeons that are stereotypes of our real opinions to make our points. But our written opinions are incorrect because they are incomplete. To fully complete our opinions requires time, space, and effort, and we don’t do that.

The result of people with passion arguing existential ideas in word bursts online is what we are seeing on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp, etc.: sincere people and an army of trolls, all misunderstanding each other. When we are forced into this mode of communication with our good friends, friends we’ve known for years, who’ve been there for us in times of trouble and triumph, well, we get lost in a tangle of words, and we lose sight of our friends’ humanity, complexity, and genuine soul. And unfortunately, this can result in losing the friend.

I have strong opinions, and my friends have strong opinions, and our opinions can be vastly different. And yet we are friends, because we recognize and respect each other’s genuine soul. We love each other. We’re there for each other. I can say that my friends saved my life. Social distancing and stay-at-home orders have disrupted our being together at a time when there is not one of us who has not been adversely affected by this damned virus. My friends and I are experiencing genuine pain, and/or fear, and/or anger, and we can’t all be together. We can snipe at each other on social media, though. This crisis has taught me that social media is not really social at all.

As I look over the surreal world we have been chucked into just a few weeks ago, and as I look at the shocks we are enduring, the threats to our humanity, and especially at the fact that we are forced to be apart to better our chances of survival, I have to come to one conclusion: we have to refuse to lose each other. We can’t let our being forced apart break us apart. We have to stay human to each other especially now that we can’t share a hug or a handshake. Right now, our friends and our family need us, and we need them. Especially now. We need to give our friends and family a break. Friendship and love are more important and deeper than any disagreement we may have. Be there for them now, and give them a hug when it’s all over.

Our humanity will get us through this.