The gift (and curse) of being together amid COVID-19
Note: Hi, it’s been a while. This is a little (a lot) more personal than my usual podcast entry. I’ve been reflecting on how work and home life has been affected by the outbreak and thought I’d put it down in words. I should probably add that I wrote this before the Singapore government announced its latest circuit breaker measures, and am still processing how it will change things. (I might record this piece, maybe. I don’t know. When I’m not, y’know, working from home. xoxo)
To the socially impoverished in a time of global pandemics, moral panic and economic turmoil, human connection is a precious commodity. Life rations it in tiny morsels. In the smiling eyes on the masked face of a bus driver whose job it is to get you home, virus or no. The laughter of children at the playground, too little to care for advisories and apocalyptic headlines. The familiar voice of an old friend over the internet calling to check in from the other side of the infected planet. The warmth of skin on skin reflected off the cool sheets in a bed that you share with someone whom you love.
Privilege, under these circumstances, is waking up with that inescapable someone, every morning. Someone with whom social distancing is an impossibility, with whom you will spend every minute of every day in the coming weeks. Privilege is (in spite of, or through knowing all this) discovering the quiet but intense joy in the mundanity of this new upside down reality: together always, all the time.
Popular culture tells us that introverts are comfortable with the many health advisories that call on us to self-isolate. Perhaps, the internet postulates, they even rejoice at the thought of henceforth not having to make any excuses to avoid social gatherings.
As an introvert, I can tell you with authority that that is factually inaccurate. None of us were built to stay in confined spaces with many people for extended periods of time. Introverts do enjoy our solitary pursuits, and benefit from time alone to ourselves to recharge. But just like anyone else, the more time we’re left alone with our thoughts, the easier we wither and wane under the stresses of an external world so threatening and unpredictable.
Social isolation takes a toll not only on mental health but physical health as well. There’s research showing that people who feel isolated are also at higher risk of heart disease, chronic inflammation, premature death. The list goes on.
On the other hand, human connection has been touted to do wonders for the mind and body. Close social ties means a long and healthy life. A reassuring touch can flood the brain with all those lovely chemicals – Serotonin! Dopamine! Oxytocin! Have them all – that make you feel good and even produce painkilling effects.
Still, introverts only need the occasional reminder of how good it feels to be with other people. That’s why I can be by myself on most days, as long as those days are sustained by the micro-interactions that enable me to just be human with other humans. Or, if I end a week-long streak of solitude with a gathering of friends on a Friday night, or a lazy Sunday in with the boy who loves me.
When the COVID-19 outbreak sank its crooked teeth into our social fabric, it left hideous uneven pockmarks in our public spaces, marked by crosses and lines made with masking tape. These gaping one-metre craters have separated us from strangers, colleagues, friends.
Mercifully, our private spaces remain intact, and to them we retreat.
But is home a sanctuary or a gilded cage?
Four-room flats have a tendency to shrink when three adult children (and their partners) are suddenly at home on a Thursday afternoon, typing furiously away at their temporary work stations (I find the most optimal ones are constructed from piles of pillows and a comforter). Retired parents grow increasingly self-conscious of the amount of daytime television they consume.
A crowded home turns inhospitable when it denies its inhabitants the room to be by themselves. The social distancing enforced on the outside world has pushed us right up against one another. In uncomfortably close proximity, our loved ones’ pet peeves and idiosyncrasies show up in high definition.
Here lies virulence of a different form from the disease lurking in the streets beyond the four walls.
Lying dormant within petty disagreements and arguments left unresolved are submicroscopic particles of doubt and resentment. Once upon a time, there was a literal exit strategy for each time there threatened to be a flare-up: the front door presented the choice to be apart, forget and heal. Now trapped inside, we are together and inflamed, and we cannot forget. Friction between bodies passing through a too small space inflicts pain on open wounds. Tension spreads, infecting every look we exchange, every word we utter, every door we slam.
Before long, we are sick, so sick. “I am so sick of you.”
Under such conditions, it is introverts that succumb the quickest. To the introvert, the scarcest resource at this juncture is personal space. People become pestilence, and our instincts scream for us to run and hide.
I am afraid of growing wary from being with a person that means the world to me, just as I am afraid he will grow sick of me. I find myself worrying when that will happen sometimes, as I look across at him while he works, his beautiful lips pressed together in deep concentration. But then he looks up at me and the moment is just as electrifying as the first time we met. He reaches over and places his hand on mine for just enough time for an email to arrive in his inbox. His arm retracts but his body heat lingers on my skin. Coronavirus be damned, my world has never been more perfect and whole.
Possessing a natural immunity to all the emotional upheaval that ordinarily sparks fights and wrecks relationships must be such a privilege, I think as I watch my favourite human navigate each new day with wonder and kindness, absent symptoms of bitterness, annoyance, impatience. No, privilege is being caught in his orbit as the rest of the universe descends into chaos.
The greatest privilege of all is to be able to see this time of confinement as a precious commodity.
We have never had more time to spend with the people we love than now, and I doubt we will ever have as much time again. This makes every second we get together delicious, and too short. The seconds will pass and soon things will return to normal. I am hopeful that it won’t be this way for long.
Life must go on. But if it doesn’t, I know he’s who I want to be with at the end of the world.