Issue #9: Belonging and Connection

You don't know what you got 'til it's gone

Connection has been top of mind for me. I’ve been working from home all of March. This week marked the first of San Francisco living under a shelter in place order that has now been extended to the whole state. As an extrovert who loves to travel, I’m feeling quite a bit of cabin fever. The introverts in my life seem to be thriving for the most part! But jokes aside, we are all feeling the pain and absence of physical connection.

Serendipitously, I’ve had two opportunities to explore connection in the midst of all of this distancing. This Monday, I co-lead a virtual workshop on the future of social interaction, an irony that was lost on no one. Aside from the slight awkwardness giving a Zoom how to at the beginning of the workshop, the day’s conversation dove into meaty issues almost immediately: equity, mutuality, stigma, belonging and more. There was widespread recognition of the opportunities for greater inclusion and equity in a post-coronavirus world with shifts in incentives and models.

The second occasion was participating in The Grand’s first virtual session exploring connecting in an age of physical distancing. To say this was healing is an understated summary of this session. With conversation ranging from wrestling with defining boundaries for digital connection to sustaining close relationships with people with whom you shelter in place with, the session explored the duality of closeness and distancing that we are all figuring out on a day to day basis.

Throughout this week, I’ve been acutely aware of the influence of the scarcity mindset. Authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir explore how the perception of scarcity informs perception and errors in judgment. Both of these conversations certainly illuminated how we have undervalued our in-person interactions and connections, contributing to the loneliness epidemic as well as other phenomena like sadfishing. Basically since we can’t connect physically, we default to seeking and investing in digitally mediated interactions while simultaneously more deeply valuing physical connection.

Ezra Klein recently explored the pain of this deprivation in Vox:

But just as the coronavirus fallout threatens to cause an economic recession, it’s also going to cause what we might call a “social recession”: a collapse in social contact that is particularly hard on the populations most vulnerable to isolation and loneliness — older adults and people with disabilities or preexisting health conditions.

The former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy also sounded the alarm in The Atlantic:

Just as a strong economy bolsters all of us against losses, social connection is a renewable resource that helps us address the challenges we face as individuals and as a society. …In the short term, the stress of loneliness serves as a natural signal that nudges us to seek out social connection—just as hunger and thirst remind us to eat and drink. But when loneliness lasts for a long time, it can become harmful by placing us in a state of chronic stress. Researchers have found that chronic loneliness is associated with a greater risk of heart disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. It’s also associated with a shorter life span. Being lonely raises mortality more than obesity or sedentary living does. The mortality impact is similar to that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Now lifelong introverts may rejoice in the ascendance of the homebody economy or the shut-in economy, significant portions of the world thrive on the connections that are now limited. Loneliness causes chronic stress than can precipitate a wide range of chronic diseases and contribute to premature death.

We’ve seen many digital and virtual options emerge amid calls for social distancing. Most tend to recreate the tactics of in-person approaches to connection without understand the shifts in norms and priorities that we can expect to see as people pursue new forms of connection in search of belonging. And the shift to virtual means of connection can place more burdens on already vulnerable populations: those with lower tech literacy, lower income, greater unfiltered exposure to contagion and risk, and more.

Although we are all living through a transition and we don’t know what new norms and models may survive and thrive after this global threat is no longer, we know that our routines and rituals will have to shift to better manage the tension between freedom to form and maintain connection and security.

Already we’ve seen nuclear families finding ways to extend bonds beyond their household with Zoom reunions and making agreements to shelter in place with a family on their block or in their building. A friend of mine in New York recently joked about marrying her roommates because they have grown much closer with the constraint of being at home.

I’ve also seen and heard stories about people who either live alone or in housing situations where they don’t have social bonds with roommates feel even more isolated. Thankfully many organizations have jumped in to offer digital community for those physically isolated. Ethel’s Club launched Care for Your Homies, a membership-based community with live conversations and workshops and a community of creatives of color. Companies like Supportiv offer anonymous support networks organized by mental health challenges.

Of course, constraints have a way of revealing breaks in our systems. Children of divorced parents had to choose sides. Children in foster care and protective services who were reestablishing connection with their families have had that interrupted. Domestic violence is on the rise. Divorce applications spiked in Xi'an after the quarantine was lifted.

So many of us will rediscover that home is where the heart is while others will pack their bags as soon as possible. But still more are learning how they can connect to broader society. Canadians have marshalled a new social movement overnight through Facebook called caremongering. One of the creators of the first Facebook group explained the meaning and movement:

The first "caremongering" group was set up by Mita Hans with the help of Valentina Harper and others. Valentina explained the meaning behind the name.

"Scaremongering is a big problem," she tells the BBC. "We wanted to switch that around and get people to connect on a positive level, to connect with each other.

"It's spread the opposite of panic in people, brought out community and camaraderie, and allowed us to tackle the needs of those who are at-risk all the time - now more than ever."

We have more time to check on people we care about and more emotional bandwidth to care for people we don’t know as our purpose shifts from productivity to survival and the nature of connection shifts from prioritizing quantity to quality. We make phone calls and Zoom calls instad of liking social media posts. We also become more attuned to our own needs and boundaries in a world where it’s possible to conncet with anyone at any time, creating more choices but more overwhelm. We all need to develop the routines and rituals that support connection in the slower-paced, more threatening world that we all belong in now.

I’m excited to start this inward journey by hosting a session with The Grand focused on belonging to oneself and our bodies on April 2. Stay tuned for registration details!