In these dark times, with the fallen market and anxious employees teleworking if they are lucky, or receiving unemployment if they are not, we look out at empty streets and face more weeks of loneliness and isolation.
We have not experienced in most of our lifetimes the sort of conditions that we face now, domestic refugees from our own neighborhoods, stores and offices. These new realities are changing irrevocably how we live and how we get along.
Communication is what binds us and both causes and quells anxiety. We have been living in an anxious world for some time. Shortly after WWII, W.H. Auden won the Pulitzer Prize for his poem “The Age of Anxiety.”
We were just getting started. The Cold War revved it up, 9/11 put it on steroids, and when Pete Townsend, songwriter for the Who, reused the title for his first novel last year, “My Generation” had become all of us. But nothing compares to the present moment.
The late Steve Jobs liked to say that his business model was the Beatles, whom he termed “four guys that kept each others’ negative tendencies in check.”
Now, with the negativity of a fearsome virus afoot in the land, it is more important than ever to think about how we speak and connect to one another. We lack for human touch, a known stress-reducer, when we most need it. We are a communal society. Even in WWII, we flocked to movies, dances, taverns, offices and factories. We were not alone.
A friend of mine who once worked the evening shift with me in a used bookstore, was a daytime caretaker for the chimps at the NIH in the days when testing on them before human trials was more common. He carried his sadness with him: what tore him apart was the scientific protocol of physically separating them. It took a terrible toll on them psychologically. Chimps are more like us than any other species: they are social creatures who crave physical touch and interaction. Separate cages were torture.
We are now engaged in a torturous social experiment. But unlike the great influenza of 1918, we have tools to address a part of the hurt from social distancing. Communications channels such as Google Hangout, Slack, Zoom and other software applications, some as simple as FaceTime – for whose ease of use and efficacy alone Steve Jobs should be a fifth Beatle – enable not just businesses to maintain workflow, but far-flung families and friends to sit together at a virtual table.
These tools have demonstrated their productivity. I was struck by a message from our son Jesse, as he suffered through pneumonia in Seattle, who noted that working from home “means we all spend more hours in the day working.” A great antidote for those who question telework. When we come out of this, many will adjust where and how we work.
Turning back the clock to a bleak March day in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, a man with the disability of polio was helped to the podium surreptitiously so as to reveal no sign of weakness to a nation in dire need of emotional support. When he addressed tens of millions of Americans via the several radio networks whose ubiquity would usher in an era of reassuring “fireside chats,” FDR’s first inaugural address said it all: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
For many American workers, we know that these times will be especially hard, and telework may not be applicable. Families will remain apart. Yet people can create online hangouts, and while that is no substitute for work or togetherness, it may be a lifeline for connection.
Had the global pandemic appeared even a few short years ago, we would not have had the tools to see each other face to face across the miles. Lonely as we feel now, we would have been lonelier still. The screen is a pale solace, but better than nothing. What one picture is worth.
FDR had it right. Fear is the enemy.