When I was standing in a long line at Costco last Friday, I was calculating what my wife and I needed to be self-sufficient, at least for a while. My goal was to have enough supplies at home to keep us from having to go to the grocery store, eat at a restaurant, or visit a pharmacy. Even while I was struck by the courtesy of the strangers in line with me and the helpfulness of the Costco employees sending me on my way, I was preparing to put on hold my engagement with others in public spaces, the sooner the better.
Self-isolation, social distancing, and other forms of withdrawing from social interaction are necessary responses to a rapidly spreading virus. There is no question about that. But even as distancing ourselves from others can save lives right now, it comes at a cost.
We are social creatures. Medical studies have shown that prolonged isolation can contribute to depression and hypertension and weaken our immune system. Taken to an extreme, being always on guard can promote an “us versus them” defensiveness that keeps us from recognizing how much we need the very people we’re removing ourselves from. Canceling sporting events, postponing festivals, and closing places of worship, schools and universities further works against our feeling that we’re part of a larger community. High school and college commencements, Fiesta, even the NBA playoffs – these recurring occasions give us something to get excited about, enjoy together, and look back on. Their absence leaves uncertain, anxious waiting that we have to cope with on our own.
I want again to emphasize that I support social distancing, event cancellations, and other measures necessary to protect the well-being of us all. But let’s remember these measures come with a price. They also appear at a time when our ties to others are already strained by intense political polarization, class, racial, and other divisions, and conflicting views of basic facts. As the Rivard Report series Disconnected: Economic Segregation in San Antonio shows, separating ourselves from others is something we’re already good at. Left unchecked, social distancing and other short-term measures risk making the longer-term challenge of rebuilding community even more of an uphill struggle.
I appreciate how schools and universities, businesses, and other organizations are not letting isolation go too far. They are exploring, for example, technological ways of keeping us in touch with one another. These virtual forms of communication sustain connections we very much need. They do what they can to keep alive relationships we value and look forward to resuming before too long in person.
Here is one other especially powerful means of connection for us to call on: reading literature. Reading is a solitary activity that depends on social distancing and turns it into an opportunity for expanding our awareness of others. Immersing yourself in a novel can never substitute for interpersonal interaction. But it can promote empathy, or the ability to see the world from someone else’s point of view.
Works of literature help us learn about other people’s lives by showing how different people see the world and interact with one another: what they say to each other, how they feel about themselves, what they notice, what they don’t see. The American novelist Henry James described a great writer as someone on whom nothing is lost. That attentiveness can rub off on readers, sharpening our ability to understand others and listen to them.
Think of the many great characters and relationships in literature that stick with us because they are so vividly described. A recent example for me would be Delia Owens’ novel Where the Crawdads Sing, which gives me the chance to view life through the eyes of a character as remote as possible from my own experience. The character is an abandoned young woman, cruelly nicknamed the Marsh Girl by the residents of a nearby town, who grows up in extreme isolation with the wildlife, plants, and wetlands of the North Carolina marshlands taking the place of family and friends. The novel exposes the prejudices that separation and difference can trigger.
I’m not saying that reading literature automatically leads to going out and doing good deeds. The benefits of reading literature are gradual and cumulative, more like every day exercise than dramatic life-saving surgery. But reading literature over time does help us become more responsive to others, more willing to let them count in our lives. That’s something we can always improve on. Right now, it’s especially important.