We all lived in bubbles long before COVID-19 came along

The truth is, we’re going to come through this four-week period of social isolation with flying colours, because, let’s face it, most of us live in states of social isolation in the course of our daily lives anyway.

Seriously, what will we miss over the next month? Spending time in cafes? Hanging out in pubs? But what’s that all about, anyway? Is it anything more than occupying a space in a place where other people are also taking up space? Is it anything more than just being around people? Sure, we might miss that over the next few weeks. But seriously, what will we miss out on, specifically? Real connection? The illusion of real connection? The sad reality is, I may hang out in the same cafe as you—even at the same table—but it doesn’t mean we’re connecting. It doesn’t mean we’re not already socially distancing.

I wonder how many people, over the next few weeks, will finally discover why it is they walk away from ‘connecting’ with friends and colleagues and family and lovers, but still feel terribly alone … still feel incredibly disappointed … still feel misunderstood, unheard, ignored … and still feel unloved.

If this period of lockdown reinforces anything, it will be that for most of the time, we are far too easily pleased with very little to no connection at all. This won’t be a popular thing to say at a time like this, when we are being urged to ‘come together’ and ‘unite against COVID-19’. But it’s as good a time as any. The truth is, we live unconnected lives; lives that lack true encounter with one another; friendships that masquerade as love but never go anywhere, never truly forage in the dark corners of our lives where we most need friendship and knowing and connection.

I don’t know about you, but I am sick and fucking tired of conversations that never go anywhere, that skirt around the edges, that stay on the surface, six feet above the things that most need to be said. I’ve had enough of chit chat, of small talk, of wank about business or structures or projects or vision or ideals or bank balances; conversations that might give me something to giggle about or gossip about or cause me to go back and watch a movie scene or buy a certain bottle of wine, but never even touch on the really important struggles we all share in this ridiculous human drama.

What I want—what I truly want—are conversations that make me and you uncomfortable; that challenge our bullshit; that make us scared but also glad to be alive; that leave us both feeling enjoyed; that leave us longing for more. Connections that refuse to dance around the things that need to be said; connections that feel like the dance itself, the push and pull of mutual delight, hesitancy, energy, movement, risk and reward.

I’m also tired of conversations about ‘God’, with people who feign intimate knowledge of what should be the source of all mystery. I’m done with conversations that masquerade as ‘faith’ but are essentially about morality. I’m done with talking to Christians who espouse love but propagate fear, who celebrate connectedness but promote isolation, exclusion, even condemnation.
I’m tired of relationships that dangle carrots; that promise much and deliver nothing; that beckon with one hand, and shoo away with the other.

‘You ask me to enter,’ sings Bono in One. ‘But then you make me crawl.’ Yep, that’s it. I’m tired of that dynamic. Of relationships that hang on that energy, and that energy alone.

What I long for is real connection, real encounter, real presence, and real love. Not only with my wife and daughters, but with friends, colleagues, clients. Religious and non-religious alike. Spiritual or profane. Old friends and new acquaintances. I want to be known and treasured by them all, and to know them fully and to treasure them even more. I want my days to be animated by connections that make me hungry and alive; that make me sing and write and cook and drink and smoke; friendships that make me want to care more about my health and wellbeing than I do about stuffing my face or drinking so that I black out; encounters that overshadow my petty anxieties and social awkwardnesses and bring me out of my shell, because it’s worth confronting the dangers.

I’m not being idealistic. I’ve had encounters that energise all of life; that feel as if they’re occurring where heaven meets earth; where the divine and the human converge. Encounters so intimate they leave you breathless and giddy.

My experience isn’t unique. My longing for more of it isn’t unique either. Therapist James H. Olthuis describes it like this:

‘At that moment there is the spark of connection across the gaps between us. Love comes as a response to the presence of the other. As that spark across the gaps happens more often, the connection deepens and the trust grows—a gradual and painful process, to be sure, as together we discover and explore our patterns of vulnerability and invulnerability, our hopes and fears. Still, the healing connection is deepened and nourished as I bare my wounds and let my frightened self find voice, feel heard, be seen, and be consoled. That is the beginning of the miracle of love: being open to another, guards down, and—no questions asked, no demands, no judgments—being respected, received, affirmed, and blessed.’

You can only write that stuff if you’ve had the experience.

The authors (neuroscientists) of A General Theory of Love speak about it like this:

‘Within the effulgence of their new brain, mammals developed a capacity we call limbic resonance—a symphony of mutual exchange and internal adaptation whereby two mammals become attuned to each other’s states. . . . when we look into the ocular portals to a limbic brain our vision goes deep: the sensations multiply, just as two mirrors placed in opposition create a shimmering ricochet of reflections whose depths recede into infinity. . . . When we meet the gaze of another, two nervous systems achieve a palpable and intimate apposition.’

I mean, Wow!! Do not think for one second that what they’re describing is your typical experience, because it isn’t. But this is what is possible—the ‘palpable and intimate apposition’. What they’re describing is only what we are wired for. My argument is that we have dulled these natural capacities—that out of fear or shame or narcissism we have blunted the sharp edges of our senses to the point that when we sit across from one another all we do is make each other more depressed and anxious than we were before we came to the table. This is typical, but it’s NOT normal. We were not meant to repeatedly play out ways of being together that offer little more than sending DMs over Instagram. DMs? Don’t waste my motherfucking time.

Listen to these words from Esther Perel:

‘Faced with the irrefutable otherness of our partner (and I want to argue the same should go for many of our intimate relationships), we can respond with fear or with curiosity. We can try to reduce the other to a knowable entity, or we can embrace her persistent mystery. When we resist the urge to control, when we keeps ourselves open, we preserve the possibility of discovery. Eroticism resides in the ambiguous space between anxiety and fascination. We remain interested in our partners; they delight us, and we’re drawn to them. But, for many of us, renouncing the illusion of safety, and accepting the reality of our fundamental insecurity, proves to be a difficult step.’

Yes, absolutely. At the core of our diminishing returns is our commitment to self-preservation. I can’t count the hours I’ve wasted in conversation with people whose unwillingness to open themselves up to risk leaves us both frustrated and a little more dead inside. How does self-preservation manifest itself in conversation? In gossip. In self-centredness. In over-talking. In moralism. Sometimes in humour. We have myriad masks when it comes to preventing the other from seeing who we truly are, but they all bear the hallmarks of the same critical problem: the illusion of safety. The result of which is deep disappointment and the sad suspicion that we are not worth knowing.

Finally, some words from Miroslav Volf:

‘The human self is formed not through a simple rejection of the other—through a binary logic of opposition and negation—but through a complex process of ‘taking in’ and ‘keeping out’. We are who we are not because we are separate from the others who are next to us, but because we are both separate and connected, both distinct and related; the boundaries that mark our identities are both barriers and bridges.’

‘Separate and connected’ … what I call the dynamic equilibrium of love encounter, the ebb and flow of differentiation and togetherness, in which our individuality is preserved while we also connect deeply and discover more of our need to be known and to know the other. This is who we are. This is what we are capable of. This is what we crave at a cellular level.

But the truth is we’re far better at separation than we are at connection. And the connections we do make are often mere illusions—not really connections at all. In this season of ‘bubbles’, we will discover that we live in bubbles all the time—that our days are spent bouncing off one another, floating through life and sharing the same communal spaces, but rarely reaching beyond our bubbles to fully connect with the people around us.

If that’s not your experience, all power to you. But it’s certainly mine. The moments of deep connection have been rare in my life. Which may be a good thing, because they have also been dangerous, disruptive, even damaging. But they have been dynamic, and I miss them.

All New Zealanders have entered four weeks of social isolation. But our means of connecting with people outside our bubbles remain (at this stage) intact … Instagram, Skype, Zoom, FaceTime. Despite the restrictions on our freedom to share the same physical spaces as others, I will bet real money that most of us will not even struggle—that the four weeks will pass and we will wonder what the fuss was all about.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope we all discover that we can’t survive without real encounter with others—that mediated relationships from the safety of our bubbles aren’t enough to sustain us. I suspect that won’t be the case. But if it is, and if as a nation we all come out of this hungry for deep and dynamic connectedness in our relationships, perhaps this will turn out to be the social reset we all needed.