London is slowly going into lockdown, tube stations are closing and Boris has just announced the compulsory closure of all restaurants, pubs, cafes, gyms and leisure centres - places we congregate in to meet our friends and family, talk, laugh and move our bodies. As social creatures, we are starting to feel the straitjacket tightening on our freedoms, one that’s been well-worn by our friends in China and Italy for some time. I haven’t hugged someone since Monday (its Saturday as I write) and handshakes stopped a week before that. I don’t know about you but the lack of physical proximity to other human beings is starting to get to me, and I’ve been described as a ‘self-sufficient’, ’fiercely independent singleton’!
At this time, I don’t think it matters what ‘type’ of person you are or what culture you are from, whether you are a reserved Brit or a gregarious Italian. We are all experiencing the side effects of social distancing. And I’ve been noticing that the physical distance is leading to an emotional distance - the personal separation between us is growing. We can’t relate to one another in the same way, there’s a reduced intimacy, because when we aren’t sharing space with one another, we share less of ourselves too.
I know this is certainly true for me at the moment. It’s strange to witness, because it is in direct contrast to the increasing use of messages and video services to keep in touch. I’ve participated in more WhatsApp group chats, FaceTimes, Skype calls and Zoom meetings in the last week than in the last year. Yesterday I downloaded Houseparty and even subscribed to an online co-working space! I have never used social media as much either, to keep track of the news and others in my industry. And yet, I can simultaneously feel myself turning inwards from the overwhelm, retreating under the cognitive stress - another animal instinct, but the opposite of herding.
Hibernation vs Herding
Our digital and virtual platforms are already proving invaluable for keeping us in touch and up to date with developments. They will certainly go on to help us navigate and manage the financial and social impacts of this pandemic, which we can only vaguely anticipate right now.
But as is becoming abundantly clear to me and others, they are no substitute for the real thing.
So, in a time when we are being separated from one another for our physical safety, it is more important than ever to KEEP COMMUNICATING in order to stay psychologically safe. It is vital for our personal mental, emotional and physical health, but it is also a collective responsibility. It’s what we as a community need.
When the group messages and phone calls started flooding in, the overwhelm elicited a familiar response in me - withdrawal. Retreat. I avoided answering calls and messages for a few days, reluctant to participate in any conversations that began with predictable (but essential) opening scripts of ‘so how are YOU?’ They made me want to SCREAM - we are all so clearly confused and panicked and irresponsibly, desperately trying to continue with life! Perhaps, if I could keep my reactions to myself, keep them contained, I could survive this better on my own.
I am aware this might be a very different reaction to those of others, I can only speak from self-observation. But for all of us having to stay at home and face isolation, don’t stop talking.
My Recent Discoveries for Staying Connected:
1) Video call someone every day
I’ve decided to make it a ritual to video call someone every day - to put in place a mechanism to counter my own default withdrawal instincts. Making it a check-list item is the only way sometimes. And I specify video because, for me, verbal phone calls alone are a lot easier to ‘coast’ through - to keep up a certain tone of voice, stay surface deep with general chit chat or to multi-task and so distract you both from really speaking to one another.
Plus, we need the visual. If I can’t literally share space with someone’s energy and life force, seeing them is the next best thing - a familiar face, a funny expression, even the interior of someone else’s home, the different way the light falls on their face, can help refresh my own internal world, (which is becoming all too familiar!)
2) Speak to a child (if you can!)
So the first person I FaceTimed today was my niece. She is 10 months old. She was just what I needed. Firstly, she removed any anxiety about pretence or artificial connection - the gaze of children is so direct and so focused, they can’t help but be absolute in their interactions and they demand the same from you.
Secondly, they keep you present. My niece’s concerns are all about now, nothing later and nothing before. When your mind is racing with constant updates on the news, fears about income (or lack thereof!), strategising and damage control for the coming weeks, a kid’s determination to climb onto the table (on her own!) pulls you right back to where you are. Here and now. Because really, there is nothing else.
3) ‘Sharing is caring’ - a reality check
I am having conversations with myself. More than usual. We are always talking to ourselves, we have a constant internal narrative or conversation going on in our minds all the time. But in isolation, this becomes concentrated and isn’t as frequently interrupted by our usual interactions with others - work meetings, lunch, buying coffee, catching a train etc. All the external stimuli that helps shift our energy or change our perspective. And this isn’t about information-gathering - we cannot get this perspective from consuming news bulletins and broadcasts - this is about hearing our own stories spoken out loud, in our own voice, and then hearing them reflected back to us in the voice of another, with their experience of living behind it.
My incredible business partner Peta and I were discussing this today - she commented on my inner strength (which to be honest, I wasn’t feeling at all!) But as we spoke, as I talked out my thoughts and ideas, I found myself discovering that strength in the action of sharing. The act itself helps us, giving us an anchor in reality.
Why We Must Keep Communicating
Pandemic: ‘prevalent throughout an entire country, continent or the whole world’
There is an irony in a pandemic which is connecting us across continents and unifying the focus of the global population in an unprecedented way, yet requires our physical isolation to ensure our collective survival.
When this is over (and it will be over one day!) we will have survived it together, in a collective act of consensual isolation, a decision to restrict our individual freedoms. We will be able to live together, physically side by side again. How grateful we will be to sit next to our friends in the cinema and share a tub of popcorn! Until then, we must do our best to preserve the personal and emotional intimacy that comes so easily face-to-face.
I may be more acutely aware of this need more than most. My whole profession - as a performer and a coach - is founded on the magic of collaboration and the necessity of live human interaction to create impact and transformation. My entire industry, as I have known it, cannot operate as it has always done. This is devastating. It is a loss. But it is not the end of connection. New ways have to be found. And we will not find them alone. Communication really is our only hope.