BY ANGELA DIACO

(LET’S TALK ABOUT SOCIAL DISTANCING TRAUMA)

The term “social distancing” entered into our everyday lexicon in a matter of days and one things for sure: I don’t like it! No, I am not proposing to stop social distancing. I am convinced that we all need to continue doing our part to pause hosting social gatherings and of our need to be extra mindful of our actions, as they affect others. We cannot continue the mentality of “this is AMERICA! I’ll do what I want!” in a time of pandemic. I just don’t like the term, social distancing.

While I recognize the intention of finding a way to correct behaviors within our social structures that allow the virus to spread, the residual effect has been an installation of fear and a lessening of our humanity, in a time where we need it most.

Words have power, and as an Italian-American in week 1 of US isolation, this new social norm was mildly traumatizing. I’ll emphasize that I’m not interested in putting a stop to social distancing, but of finding new ways to connect.

Let me explain.

Italy. Ah, Italy. While it may be just pasta, pizza and pesto to many, Italy to me represents the active, beating heart of a life well-lived. My Italian relatives instilled in me a deep appreciation for nature, animals and philosophy. Their long history spanning thousands of years evoked in me a sense of the interconnectedness of all humanity. In both good and bad time, we can cry with passion and laugh effortlessly. We know what’s important. Nothing compares to a house filled with people we love, permeated by the scent of freshly picked tomatoes ,where the simple pleasures of life bring joy and fulfillment. Simply feeling Nonna’s hand in mine as we sit in the sun is enough to bring a sense of peace. This relentless hold on the sacred is to me the core of the expression forza.

As Italian culture is of the “baci baci” variety: one of the worst things is to have a means of expression taken away. But like the videos of balcony singing and homemade flags have shown, give an Italian a problem, and they will make it into Art.

Due to the necessity to contain the virus, the abrupt isolation hit us all with a bit of a shock: what do I do with this very human need for contact during a time of socially imposed shortage? For the socially conscious individual like myself who has opted to isolate, the initial reaction is one of mild panic.

Going to the supermarket has become a luxury, and it can be a harrowing experience. Gone are the days of weaving aisles mindlessly and exchanging nods with strangers — social distancing means you avoid eye contact, and people are careful even to angle their faces away from you. They dodge your body with distinct mental calculation.

And all of that fear and cautiousness is perfectly legitimate. We need to take care of our bodies. But to me now, there’s a greater danger we can fall into: seeing others as solely a potential vehicle for a deadly virus. And it’s traumatizing to me and perhaps to our collective culture.

People now more than ever need acknowledgement. They need to know that they matter, that we care and that they’re OK, which is why the term social distancing needs not only changing, but reclaiming.

We need to be social, now more than ever. Our multi-friend Zoom calls and FaceTimes are a blessing, but how do we conduct ourselves outside our ever-tightening circles? How will we treat our fellow human being on the streets?

This is why I’m proposing some new terms. Instead, could we refer to “physical distancing”, or “distant but aware,” or “distant closeness”, or maybe even “standing together, apart”. Anything but social distancing, please.

We are a social species, and we are endowed with an intelligence that can make physically distant socializing appropriate. A stumbling block can be “fear of the unknown” and it is an unknown, which adds to our anxiety. But anxiety has its roots in living in the future. Today is an opportunity to change, to adapt and maybe even experience joy.

Why not smile at people you pass by? Why not dare to make eye contact with a stranger? Why not offer up a “good morning” or “good evening” behind our masks?

In a strange way, this virus reminds us that through the illusion of complete control over our world, we can’t outsmart Nature. We are Human Beings, part of Nature and part of one humanity, and we’ve been neglecting both for too long.

I hope that we’ll discover how to tend to a very precious need that we’ve similarly been neglecting: the fact that you don’t have to touch someone to be near them.