COVID-19 and Loneliness

crowd reflection color toy

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No single state lasts forever. How will you react when things change and you feel threatened? People are creatures of habit, and in 2020 a form of coronavirus has unexpectedly risen to rapidly infect over 300,000 humans while disturbing our daily routines on a global scale. We are geared towards survival, and things that appear to threaten our survival often disturb us.

Our reaction to the virus may demonstrate our desire for predictability more than our frustrations with widespread death and disease. A person often seems less disturbed when that person thinks a disease has the potential to hurt many others. A person seems more disturbed when a disease has the potential to hurt that person or people who feel closer to that person. The speed and urgency with which this virus is spreading is another factor that produces a sense of dread.

If you want to explore this further, take some time to compare the statistics on coronavirus with the statistics on other causes of death such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease, kidney disease, Alzheimer disease and other dementias, unintentional injuries (e.g. road accidents), and suicide (Center for Disease Control, 2020; CDC, 2017). The reproduction rate of coronavirus is disturbing, but other infectious diseases such as diarrhoeal diseases, influenza and pneumonia, HIV, tuberculosis, and mosquito-borne illnesses have killed many, many more people while remaining commonplace (World Health Organization, 2019). It may be that commonplace feeling combined with the privileges of age-group, socioeconomic status, and environmental advantages (e.g. geographic location, economic & technological development, community immunity, etc.) that allow our fears to be stilled in the midst of these other pervasive problems.

Diet, exercise, sleep, and social health habits impact our lives over long periods of time. A motor vehicle accident (MVA) or suicide only requires a few mistakes or a moment of ignorance. These problems can seem more insidious : “developing so gradually as to be well established before becoming apparent” (e.g. heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, etc.) or “awaiting a chance to entrap” (e.g. unintentional accidents such as MVA’s, intentional self-harm, etc.) (Mish et al., 2014).

While it is important to realize that everything develops over time (e.g. even MVA and self-harm risk factors can be identified and addressed), these more insidious causes of death may be less disturbing to us due to their familiarity, slow onset, and rapid culmination. Atherosclerosis (“artery hardening” “…marked by cholesterol-lipid-calcium deposits in the walls of arteries that may restrict blood flow”), accumulation of radiation exposure (e.g. tobacco smoke, ultraviolet light, etc.), chronic sleep deprivation, social isolation, and obesity can all take years or decades to accumulate/develop before resulting in dramatic lifestyle changes over the course of a few months (Chabner, 2015; Venes et al., 2005). Feeling lonely is only a small aspect of one factor of many, many variables that accumulate to influence our health over time.

Coronavirus has spread at an unprecedented rate, and this fact alone is enough to awaken our instinctual fears. This is the time to be listening to local authorities and adhering to recommended precautions, not gathering together in groups. Cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the United States, and the longer people ignore social distancing and travel restrictions, the worse this pandemic is likely to be. We need to take this seriously while still caring for each other. See the World Health Organization’s updates on COVID-19, and adhere to their and the Center for Disease Control’s advice concerning this coronavirus (World Health Organization, 2019-2020; CDC, 2020). My goal with this post is to highlight a little of what I have been learning about another problem (loneliness) that could be exacerbated by the quarantine-like measures in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Loneliness is a common human condition to experience, especially in response to perceived threats (e.g. isolation and coronavirus). Lonely is commonly defined in many ways: “being without company” (i.e. lone), “cut off from others” (i.e. solitary), “not frequented by human beings” (i.e. desolate), “sad from being alone” (i.e. lonesome), and “producing a feeling of bleakness or desolation” (i.e. loneliness) (Mish et al., 2014). The last two definitions more closely resemble the way John Cacioppo portrayed loneliness in his 2008 book, Loneliness, co-authored by William Patrick.

When we have feelings of loneliness (i.e. “the anxious, depressed, or dysphoric mood that occurs as a result of physical or psychic isolation”), we need to react to them in a healthy way to prevent those feelings from accumulating over time (Venes et al., 2005). John Cacioppo and William Patrick describe loneliness as “…a stimulus to get humans to pay more attention to their social connections, and to reach out toward others, to renew frayed or broken bonds.” By comparing loneliness to hunger or thirst, Cacioppo is suggesting the feeling is an “…alarm signal…” that “…serves a survival function…”. The authors state, “…chronic feelings of isolation can drive a cascade of physiological events that actually accelerates the aging process.” Cacioppo and Patrick (2008) go on to describe the health implications of loneliness in detail, but the most functional takeaway from the book may be how Cacioppo encourages us to respond to loneliness.

“Whereas kind and generous behavior leads to social acceptance and the healthful feeling of connection, selfish antisocial behavior leads to physical decline and the disruptive pain of social isolation.” (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2009).

The authors are encouraging their readers to engage and invest in their communities in a healthy way. Instead of fearing society, we are encouraged to move towards others with whom we can establish mutually encouraging relationships that foster more kind, deep, and meaningful connections. I came to similar but much simpler and more rudimentary conclusion when I wrote a reflection on loneliness a year or two ago. We are all original and unique people, and the answers we find in life often look at least slightly different. My answers for loneliness often come from the values and people I have encountered throughout my past. You will need to find your own way to healthily respond to loneliness, but in this time of increased physical isolation here are a few suggestions to remain socially engaged…

  • Call or video chat with a kind friend/family member with whom you have a deep, mutually-encouraging relationship
  • Call someone who you want to encourage while expecting to be content regardless of how your encouragement is received (e.g. your friends, siblings, parents, grandparents, or other relatives)
  • Write some thank you notes or emails
  • Volunteer your time or resources to safely support others during this time
  • Hold virtual gatherings around meals or other events (e.g. a movie, a birthday, a spiritual or religious gathering, a book study, etc.)
  • Educate yourself about things that other people are going through or feeling during this time and how you can be helpful to them
  • Practice your artistic talents (e.g. music, crafts, sports, etc.) and practical skills (e.g. cooking, coding, handiwork, etc.) with the goal of being better able to use those skills to personally care for others in the future (e.g. I’m coping with my subjective feelings, expanding my knowledge, and reaching out to others through writing this blog post)
  • If your area is allowing person-to-person interactions in public spaces (the fewer the better at this point), casually screen you friend(s) for recent symptoms (cough, fever, shortness of breath) and meet in locations where social distancing (i.e. maintaining a distance of 6 feet at all times) is fairly easy (e.g. going for a walk in a local park or trail)

If you are curious about the potential consequences and severity of loneliness, talk to your doctor and/or ask for a referral for counseling or behavioral health. You can also consider taking the UCLA Loneliness Scale and reading Loneliness by Cacioppo and Patrick. The book ends with practical ways to “EASE Your Way to Social Connection” (Extend yourself, Action plan, Selection, Expect the best) (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2009). If you want to know the details of and reasons for those strategies, you’ll have to read the book.

“The best ideas are those that benefit the individual, the family, the tribe, and ultimately the species.” (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2009)

If there is something good that is coming out of this pandemic, it is the undeniable interconnectedness of our species and of life on earth. In spite of our best efforts, we cannot yet escape each other. Each of our actions influences this little island paradise and the life upon it in some minuscule or small way. Only those who can decipher the butterfly effect will know the extent of the impact of those actions. We are lucky, blessed, and privileged to be living out our unique life-journeys on this oasis of a planet. If we draw larger and larger circles around ourselves while gladly holding ourselves accountable to our individual and social responsibilities, we will come out of this stronger together.

 

“…the hallmark of a successful, long-lived civilization may be the ability to achieve a lasting peace among the several brain components.” – Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden

 

“I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.” – Viktor E. Frankl as quoted by William J. Winslade in the Afterward to Man’s Search for Meaning

 

“Any ideology that needs to attack the thing that least threatens it is an ideology that will not outlive its own generation. Inclusion not exclusion, gentlemen, is the key to survival.” – St. John, fictional character, The Power of One (1992)

 

 

Citations

Cacioppo, J. T. & Patrick, W. (2009). Loneliness: human nature and the need for social connection. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

CDC (2020, March 13). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Retrieved March 22, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html

CDC (2017, May 3). FastStats – Deaths and Mortality. Retrieved March 22, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/deaths.htm

Center for Disease Control (2020, March 19). World Map. Retrieved March 22, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/world-map.html

Chabner, D.-E. (2015). Medical terminology: a short course (6th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Inc.

Mish, Frederick C., et al. (2014). The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.

Venes, D., M.D. et al. (2005). Tabers cyclopedic medical dictionary (21st ed.). Philadelphia: F.A. Davis.

World Health Organization (2019, May 6). Top 10 causes of death. Retrieved March 22, 2020, from https://www.who.int/gho/mortality_burden_disease/causes_death/top_10/en/

World Health Organization (2019-2020). Novel Coronavirus situation reports. (n.d.). Retrieved March 22, 2020, from https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/situation-reports

 

On Statues

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There are certainly some persons who deserve to be remembered more than others, but does anyone deserve a statue molded in their likeness? Should any man or woman be memorialized by a larger than life image?

First hearing by word of mouth of the controversy in Charlottesville, Virginia last Sunday, it was hard to be surprised. There have been many acts of terrorism in the news lately, and one more senseless act added to the numbness. Terrible, egregious, disgusting, inhuman, evil… these words may be accurate descriptors, but they often fall short of empathy and feeling. It’s one thing to describe an incident, and it’s another to live it.

Later that night after having some time to reflect on the incident, a discussion with a friend commenced over a game of pool. What motivated the event? Why now? Is our society in regression or experiencing growing pains?

Then came the discussions of this week. Should memorials to rebels and slave owners be maintained? Historical figures were compared, and the differing perspectives on their memorials were illuminated. Oppressive or defensive? Worthless or worthy? Hate or heritage?

During another brief personal discussion I told colleagues I could “…understand both sides…” and didn’t want to condone “…censoring history…”. “Understand” was inaccurate, and “both sides” was a poor choice of words. Some emotion brewed in a friend’s face as he asked if a memorial to Hitler would be appropriate? The question was rhetorical, but thoughts comparing Confederate leaders to Nazi leaders immediately came to mind… Do these men deserve to be memorialized?

Is there enough goodness in those Southern soldiers that is worth remembering? Or, does the obvious evil that these soldiers died defending rule out a position of honor for their statues? Is felling a Confederate leader’s memorial ignoring history, or would destroying theses statues be an acknowledgment of past crimes? It’s clear that history often, if not always, remains up for interpretation.

Another reality is that honorable intentions do not right injustices. Every human seems more dynamic than people are willing to admit, and stereotypes or generalizations often cloud the complexity of a life. However, are there things that must not be condoned, even if done by a generally good man?

The most accurate interpretations of the integrity of the men who’s statues are being debated should be left up to those honest individuals willing to search historical records and primary sources for the facts. That is not the subject here. The more relevant issue seems to be one of putting the present into historical context.

The men memorialized by these statues lived through events that changed the course of history. The nation that was split in two reunited, but were wrongs righted? Were all hurts healed?

Roughly 8 years after the inauguration of President Obama…

  • nearly 50 years after the death of Dr. King…
  • approximately 70 years after Robinson first swung a major league bat…
  • around 114 years after W. E. B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk and 116 years after Booker T. Washington published Up From Slavery
  • something like 154 years after the formation of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry…
  • 160 years since the Supreme Court’s decision on Dred Scott v. Sanford…
  • 184 years after the death of William Wilberforce and the subsequent abolition of slavery in the British Empire…
  • nearly 200 years since the birth of Frederick Douglass…
  • thereabouts 243 years after General George Washington halted the recruitment of black soldiers for service in the Continental Army…
  • 228 years after the publication of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography…
  • around 398 years since the first Africans were enslaved on American soil in Jamestown…
  • more or less than 516 years after Saint-Domingue (Santo Domingo) became an international slave port…
  • and circa 525 years since Columbus planted the seeds of European colonialism in the Caribbean – what would prove to be a tragic event for millions of indigenous people in Africa and the West…

…these American lands are still reeling over past sins – sins that cannot be made right.

While there is no way to right the wrongs of the past, there is hope in the present.

  • First, those who have ancestors that were responsible for the injustices of genocide, slavery, or other acts of racist oppression and/or those who have benefited from systemic social hierarchies reinforced by a history of white-European colonialism, would do well to seek recognition of how evils of the past have influenced their current circumstances. Besides an awareness of the history of these injustices and their direct or indirect effects on the present, regret for the racially motivated decisions of the past would benefit current societal relationships. A sense of “white guilt” is not something people need to be ashamed of. Feelings of remorse for generational transgressions do not necessitate self-hatred or despise for one’s own skin color. Descendants of slavers and people who benefited from slavery have the right to feel guilty for the sins their ancestors committed, condoned, and/or tolerated.  This guilt is not something to fear or be ashamed of but something to act on. Shame can often feel like self-loathing, but guilt can feel more like catalyst for positive change. “White guilt” can simply be a lesson from history and a motivation for creating or maintaining more just societies. In that context, “white guilt” is not holding oneself individually responsible for the crimes of another individual. Rather, it is an individual confession of past crimes that are relevant due to their direct or indirect effects on the present. One could argue that as living creatures, mammals, or in the very least as human beings, we are all one human family, and any society interested in social justice, human rights, and general civility will take on a communal responsibility to never repeat the sin of slavery.

Furthermore, there is no shame in discouraging voluntary segregation or prejudice, even if one’s blood-line may have systematically oppressed the ancestors of another ethnicity or people-group, and vice-versa.

  • Feeling fear of unknowns at the site of a dinner party crowd of different cultures or skin tones can actually incite an urge to join their company rather than remain in the comfortable circle of more predictable commonplace.
  • Discussions of injustice driven by petty things such as skin color, wealth, or greed need not be constantly avoided but rather should be addressed with humility, authenticity, and caution – especially regarding an experience a person could not understand unless she or he took on the appearance, heritage, environment, and event of the one who lived it.
  • Having affections for an individual of a skin color quite different from one’s own may feel odd to some (especially if one grew up learning that such a feeling should feel odd), but it should not feel wrong simply for sake of appearance or for avoidance of surface-level judgments. If such feelings and affections spark a romantic relationship, people can find solace in the long history of many joyful couples who have ignored skin color as a deal-breaker for their romantic relationships.

On statues, carved or modeled – molded or assembled, they are lifeless things meant to represent or honor something greater. What benefit do these motionless creations have to offer besides reminders of higher ideals and heroic deeds? At best, statues are but a caricature of the people they are meant to emulate. Far from the beating hearts and original minds of the persons they represent, these monuments are cold giants that use size and art to vainly seek to make up for whatever piece of humanity that was lost.

This humanity is not flawlessly set as sinner against saint or hero versus villain. As much as people aspire to glorious perfection, it has yet to be reached by any of the finite creatures that populate this planet. Rather, each memorial should be purposed to bring out the best of this human condition while acknowledging the truth of the times which the figure represents.

An effective memorial should not encourage people to wallow in its presence or rage against its existence but carry on with their lives, taking with them a memory that will spark to light part of what it means to be truly human. There has been far to much tragedy in this world already. While history must be remembered for what it was, humanity needs not to abide memorials that recall and breed division in the present.

Statues should be constructed to promote a sense of righteous resolve, connectedness, and/or hope.  History has afforded us many examples of individuals and events, flawed, but resulting in courageously righteous action. Uplift that which will uplift. If statues fail to meet this criteria, history can continue to be honestly maintained while the figure is respectfully and democratically removed from a place of honor or, disrespectfully, torn down.