If Jasmine and I had a super power it would be this: Drawing ordinary people into small, life-giving communities that meet together, face-to-face, in the real world. We run book clubs, support groups, Bible studies, child and youth programs and community drop-ins. We encourage people, not only gather together, but pray together, eat together, share with one another and, in so doing, build lasting friendships. This is at the heart of our calling— to push back against the forces of alienation at work in our culture. When we (or anybody else doing similar work) offer people places and reasons to meet, we’re providing an essential service— the kind of life-giving social contact that is every bit as vital to our overall health as a proper diet and physical exercise.
For this reason I’m concerned about the strict but, apparently, necessary measures that are being taken to mitigate the spread of the Covid-19. Don’t get me wrong. I’m most emphatically not saying that these measures are pointless and excessive. The temporary suspension of classes, the cancellation of large-scale public events and the encouraging of voluntary social isolation are all reasonable considering this virus’ potential to overwhelm the healthcare system. That said, I’m worried about the longterm impact that all of this will have on a society that is already plagued by what some have labelled a loneliness epidemic. What impact will all of this social isolation have on, say, our seniors— many of whom (even in the best of circumstances) are lonely enough as it is? What about people suffering from depression and other forms of mental illness? What impact would a dramatic reduction in social contact have on their overall mental health?
With this question in mind, I’ve put together a list of things that I plan on doing to assuage the effects that this social isolation will have on my own emotional wellbeing, along with the emotional wellbeing of my family members and parishioners. Here they are, in no particular order:
Enjoy quality time with the people in your immediate family: If you have kids, they probably have a couple weeks off school. Instead of letting them hide in their rooms, spending hour after hour gaming or using social media, try to connect with them. Help them with whatever school assignments their teachers may have given them but also see if you can teach them something that they’re not learning in the school system. Read to them, have them help you prepare supper, take them on a hike in the woods, etc. With schools closed and extra-curricular activities put on hold, this might actually be a golden opportunity to rebuild a relationship that— in the frenetic activity of day-to-day life— may have been neglected.
Call grandma: So far as I know, Covid-19 has not mutated into a digital virus that can be spread through landlines or satellite towers. (Yet!) Therefore, if you have an elderly family member (a parent, a grandparent) who is self-segregating for fear of contracting the virus, be sure to call them regularly. I, for one, plan on bugging my mother and father daily. Furthermore, if you are a member of a church community, I’d encourage you to reach out to the seniors there as well. Give them a call every once in a while to see how they’re doing. As priests, my wife and I plan on doing just that with some of our elderly parishioners— particularly those who have underlying health conditions.
Pray: There’s a reason why Saint Anthony and the 3rd century desert monks didn’t go insane in their isolation. They were disciplined in prayer. Their prayer drew them into deep fellowship with God— a fellowship which, in turn, sustained a rich, mystical communion with the church, humanity and, indeed, all of creation. They were isolated, yes, but they were most certainly not alone. They entered into relationship with the One who is relationship itself— Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If you’re not a person of faith, then remain disciplined with whatever practice has sustained your mental health in the past. Meditate or spend time in nature. All of these things keep us connected with something bigger than we are.
Participate in Online Community: Having been forced to cancel worship services, many churches have been experimenting with online worship. The pastors of some churches in our area have uploaded virtual worship services to various online platforms, offering a condensed, simplified version of a Sunday service, complete with prayers, a brief sermon and even music. If your church community is offering such an online service, please take advantage of it. By all means, engage in your own private, religious practice. However, if you’re part of a local worshipping community, it’s important to maintain your connection to it even if you are, for a brief period of time, forced to remain physically separate. If you don’t go to church but are involved with, say, a book club or discussion group see if you can figure out a way to carry on these meetings online.
Resolve to carry on with normal life once the situation has past: Hopefully, all of this craziness will blow over sooner rather than later. When it inevitably does, let’s all resolve to get together again— face-to-face, in our places of worship, schools, community centres and arenas. My biggest fear about all of these (necessary) precautions is this: They will set a precedent for what daily life looks like in a non-pandemic situation. This could have disastrous results for voluntary civic institutions (churches, service clubs, etc.) whose numbers are already thinning out, even without a highly contagious virus to contend with. These organizations play a vital role in sustaining what we call the social fabric— the vast web of relationships that constitute the very glue of day-to-day civic life. They are, in a manner of speaking, an endangered species that we cannot allow to simply go extinct.
So, rather than spending each of your waking hours vigilantly guarding that massive stockpile of toilet paper and Purell hand sanitizer that you’ve been hoarding in your private doom’s day bunker may I, instead, suggest that you do all the things that I’ve listed above. It also wouldn’t hurt to share this article. And, if you have any better suggestions, I’d warmly encourage you to include them in the comments section below.