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I didn’t originally plan to write about the phenomenon of social distancing in this series; indeed, I wasn’t even aware that the term existed when I began writing these essays about loneliness. However, three months into the “Loneliness Today” series, the coronavirus pandemic has hit my corner of the Northeastern United States. The only time I have interacted with people in the physical world outside my immediate family in the past three days was on a trip to the grocery store, undertaken purely out of curiosity about what people around here are hoarding and what they aren’t.[1] Other than that, I’ve been relying on internet and telephone communication to an even greater extent than I usually do as a shy person in his twenties whose close friends mostly live in other states. I can’t say the experience has been roundly horrific, but it hasn’t been a lot of fun either.

We could say that social distancing in the face of the coronavirus is an acute form of loneliness rather than a chronic one. Most people who are now staying at home and avoiding touching people in public were previously leading active social lives, and will presumably return to them at some point in the coming weeks or months. However, this fact in itself makes the distancing more difficult for many people. Because of the different nature of this form of loneliness to the other forms that I have discussed in this series, I will write this installment in a different style, focusing on encouragement and advice for my readers, rather than an analytical dissection of modern society.

Social distancing is an old concept, and in many times and places it has been much more extreme and lasted much longer than is the case with COVID-19. Boccaccio’s Decameron (which is currently sitting at #1 on Amazon’s bestsellers in Italian literature, as Camus’s The Plague is in French literature) is all about social distancing. Much like the Canterbury Tales, the Decameron has a frame narrative; seven young women and three young men (engaged as chaperones for the young women–different times) have isolated themselves in a remote villa in the Italian countryside during the Black Death. They pass their time by telling one another stories, in an astonishing variety of genres. As is often the case, the medievals knew things about making their own fun that we moderns have forgotten. Today, it’s also recommended that people stuck at home occupy themselves with narrative art and literature, but society has by and large lost the art of doing so in ways more proactive and spiritually edifying than Netflix binges. Older people often have vast collections of the sorts of lengthy anecdotes that Pope Francis extolled in Christus vivit §195; young people sequestered at home with parents or grandparents should encourage them to tell their stories and then listen attentively. Younger people typically have numerous favorite books or movies; older people who are cloistered with their children or grandchildren during this time  should ask them about these. People who are confined at home with others of their own age will of course have common frames of reference for storytelling and reminiscing, and should make use of them. People stuck at home alone should engage loved ones in phone calls; there’s an increasing aversion to phone calls (as opposed to text messages) these days for reasons I don’t fully understand, but this aversion should be resisted because there really is (for hearing people) no substitute for hearing a loved one’s voice.

Many people have a psychological need for physical touch, even if it is only high-fiving friends or brushing a cashier’s fingers when accepting change. This is harder to replace than conversation is, to the point that I would merely counsel those feeling this need keenly to take heart and remember that the current period, while open-ended, is temporary.

Regarding the cancellation of religious services, I’d like to remind my readers of 1248 §2 of the Code of Canon Law, which recommends that those who are unable to attend Mass substitute private prayers, devotions, and meditations. The website for the devotional magazine Magnificat has made online content available for free to help the faithful continue to live out our faith lives while unable to attend Mass. Now would also be a great time to spend time reading the Bible either by yourself or with your loved ones, and to get into a habit of praying more often and more deeply. (I’ve already begun peppering my days at home with prayers I normally only say before going to bed at night.) If you’re frustrated with your diocese for suspending Mass and feel that it’s seriously damaging your spiritual life even as you keep up devotional practices at home, try to think of others for whom a crowded Mass might be much more dangerous in these times than it would be for you. It might also be worth seeing if there are churches in your area that are still open for private prayers, even if not for communal liturgies; in my experience even merely spending time in the sacred space of a church sanctuary can be spiritually nourishing.

Pope St. John Paul II made a maxim of Gabriel’s words to Mary, “be not afraid!” It’s imperative to remember those words in times like this—even if one is not afraid of the disease itself (I’m not, because I’m twenty-seven years old and in decent physical health), the impact on social life, which for many people has been disrupted to an unprecedented extent, is frightening in its own right. But we will endure this; the Church, the barque of Peter, will endure it, and the faithful will endure it. As St. Paul says in his second letter to Timothy, we will fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith.

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[1] People in my town sure love pasta.

Image: “Young Italian Woman at a Table” by Paul Cezanne

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