Social Isolation as an Expression of Community

Taylor Kerby, a full-time educator, is an alumnus of Claremont Graduate University, where he earned Masters’ degrees in Education and Religion.

My wife and I were in Puerto Rico when the world shut down. Somehow we had talked our parents into watching our two daughters for the duration of our trip and were in paradise enjoying what was essentially a second honeymoon. When we left Phoenix, the coronavirus was still something happening somewhere else; one of those very real world problems that existed only on news reports. The island got its first case of the virus just before we left, being about a week behind the continental states. During our stay, our experience with the virus came only through news of school closures and travel restrictions back home, all of which contrasted sharply with the island’s continued normalcy, which left us with the false impression that these stories were obviously temporary. I am a school teacher and even joked that I hoped I’d end up with an extra week on top of our spring break.

That hoped-for week has since come and gone, taking several other weeks with it. Being home all day, transitioning to an online teaching platform, and keeping my daughters alive has created a desperate monotony for all involved. Like so many other Mormon families, we bought a trampoline to give the children something to do. The best $100 we’ve ever spent.

Halting our lives is unspeakably hard. As I read more posts from concerned parties apprehensive about increasing government power in the time of pandemic, I find myself having some sympathy for their concern. This isn’t because I’m actually worried about these new public health measures begetting abuses of government power, but because I too feel desperate. Even with my family, I feel lonely. I hate social distancing, and I wish it were over. I wish I could take my own life back.

In The Ethics of Authenticity, Charles Taylor wrote, “…the dark side of individualism is a centering on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society.” We Americans take an implicit pride in what Durkheim called our “cult of the individual.” We, like our ancestors, value the defiance of authority, a shattering of tradition, and always root for the underdog. There are no primetime dramas featuring an entry-level cop who, against his own rookie judgment, heeds the advice of his sergeant and finds things work out for the best that way. In the excitement we have imputed to the individual over the collective, we have become blind to individualism’s darker consequences that Taylor warned us about; consequences we are experiencing on a more visceral level in the COVID-19 moment.

Contrasting with our secular veneration of the individual is the religious valuing of the community. The idea of community, a vital component of every religious tradition, is what we find ourselves considering deeply in an era of pandemic. I am always shocked when I contemplate the way religion brings together people who would never otherwise interact. I recall my first time attending mass and being asked to greet the others around me. I am not Catholic and never attended that church again. But I still shook hands and exchanged quick embraces with all around me. This was so much more the case growing up in the church where congregations are determined by geographical boundaries rather than preference.  It was taken for granted that we were to help a member of our congregation move and bring them meals when they were ill. I can recall performing these acts of service for people I knew very little.

In this pandemic we expected to make sacrifices for others we will never meet by isolating ourselves from others we’d like to be with. We find ourselves deprived of our desired community for the sake of our unseen community. In this moment we might do well to remember a lesson that could be endorsed by all religious traditions that we ought to desire even the unseen community. The Dali Lama has proposed the following thought experiment. Because, as he believes, we have had an infinite number of past lives, and so has everyone else, it is reasonable to suppose that the stranger was once your own mother. I, myself, do not believe in reincarnation. But I have tried to utilize this hypothetical when in need of greater compassion. I am often able to gain a little patience, for instance, when I imagine the person who cut me off in traffic was once my mother. Occasionally, I’ll try to put it in more Mormon-friendly language: I’ll imagine that person was my friend, in the preexistence. Or, more often, I’ll remember that I can’t prove that person wasn’t my friend. And, absent the reality of reincarnation or knowledge of the life before, the Dali Lama isn’t all wrong. That person is loved by someone. What difference does it make that it isn’t me?

When we are asked to social distance, it cuts across our individualistic values. Changing our behavior at the advice of authority, especially a government authority, is near blasphemy in the cult of the American individual. And we have discovered that cutting ourselves off from those we’d like to spend time with has flattened and narrowed our lives and made them poorer in meaning. But perhaps we would all be benefited from engaging with the Dali Lama’s thought experiment. Perhaps meaning can be made in our isolation, in our “blasphemy” by imagining that it is for our own mother. It might be. But if it’s not, the experiment is still not wrong. After all, your isolation will save the life of someone who is loved by someone else. What difference does it make that it isn’t you?

None of this takes away my desperation. But it does lend it purpose. Putting my own life on hold is beyond inconvenient, it’s awful and long and agonizing. But what is worse still is living only for yourself. Ironically, living in temporary separation can bring us together if only through the love we show for our unseen community. And, perhaps most importantly, it can remind us how wrong we are when we suppose we are ever just ourself. We are a community; bound together perhaps through endless cycles of rebirth or maybe through a shared cosmic familial past or maybe just through a coincidence of history. Whatever the reason, we owe each other something, just as children owe their parents something and friends owe their friends something. Let us be willing to give it.

Comments

  1. I like to remember that we are not to speak evil of the Lord’s anointed. And because I can’t know who has been endowed, and thus who has been washed and annointed (or better still, that through proxy work I know that all someday will have been annointed), I try not to speak evil of anyone. I’m very bad at meeting my goal. But I’m a better person the more I work at it.

  2. Geoff - Aus says:

    It is reported here that President Trump is advocating his supporters stop following instructions to prevent the spread of the virus. One of the rallies was in Idaho, where 1 in 1000 of the population is positive, and how many could be carriers?

    My perception is that the furthur right politically you are the less you are willing to sacrifice for the common good.

    This is going to be a test of ideology v science.

    The world will be watching to see whether the downturn that had started in America continues, or the scientific advisors are proven right, and and another 30,000 die? This is high stakes ideology.

    If only Trump followers follow his advice, and suffer the consequence?

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