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In Psalm 57, as he’s hiding in a cave from a murderous King Saul, David writes:
Be gracious to
me, O God, be gracious to me,
For my soul takes refuge in You;
And in the shadow of Your wings will I take refuge
Until destruction passes by.
Until destruction passes. Wow. It seems that still might be a while. Politicians can’t seem to agree on when a safe time to come out from under the covers will be. Neither can the medical professionals and epidemiologists. Nobody knows where this virus is headed. It’s our first time at the rodeo with COVID. Even the oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, is sitting on his wallet. He’s not grabbing up bankrupt companies at fire sales like he did in 2008, even with his $185 billion in available cash. Even “The Warren” is unsure of where we’re headed now.
Which puts all of us in the middle of a crap shoot.
I don’t know about you, but this prolonged lack of contact is straining my emotional DNA. It’s at times like this that I need to remember: I am only an animal. I say this not in a disparaging way, but in a realistic one since, as mammals, we have extra wiring for social connection and protection.
You only have to watch a community’s response to a tornado, or a dance contest on a cruise ship, to see this social hard-wiring at work. The development of our 6-layered neo-cortex, a part of the brain unique to mammals, gave us this social capacity and as this capacity grew, our brains grew larger and larger and we became hardwired to give and receive social connection. This hard-wiring for social connection is what enabled us to become the most successful, and dangerous, creatures on the planet.
In his wonderful book “Resilient” neuroscientist Rick Hanson writes, “In an evolutionary spiral, the survival benefits of relationship for our primate and human ancestors encouraged the development of a more “social” brain, which enabled even more complex relationships, which called for an even more capable brain…” He goes on to say, “Being dependent may sound like a weakness, but it is one of our greatest strengths. Spreading to the farthest corners of the globe, even walking upon the moon, humans have become so wildly successful through depending on each other…”
And now here we are, alone. No 1970’s dance contests, no pints at the pub, no dinners out when just want a waiter to get you more tea, no hugs from friends at the store, no hugs or a funeral when you lose someone. It’s killing us, this second pandemic of loneliness.
As complex social creatures, this separation from one another is altering our personal realities. The complex regions of our brain that are wired for social connection are hurting and it’s a pain that we all feel. This hard-wired connection is not something we can turn on and off. COVID-19 is pressing us up against a wall that was built millions of years ago by our ancestors for evolutionary reasons: We formed social groups to survive and thrive.
But now, our COVID-19 isolation has gone on long enough that we’re coming apart at the seams. We mourn the loss of those hugs, those dinners with friends, those toasts around the table, the shared empathy of our community when someone falls seriously ill or dies.
Our brains are reeling from the lack of this essential connection. We’re sleeping too much, or we’re too anxious to sleep at all. We’re hyper-focused or we can’t concentrate. We’re snappy one minute and balling our eyes out over a song on Facebook the next. We’re eating everything or drinking everything in sight while we either hoard or ration toilet paper.
Now most of the messages from those in charge say you should look for the positive, put a smiley face on that, damn it, suck it up! Think of it like a vacation—try a new board game or recipe!
But none of these messages are the truth, and none of them are the answer, and we all know it. The truth is, we’re hurting. Until we can truly be together again in safety, the only road forward is to treat ourselves kindly with extreme self-compassion.
You can’t fight this second pandemic of social isolation with self-bullying. But you can protect yourself by understanding that you are an amazing, complex mammal, wired for social connection.