The pandemic reminds us that we remain firmly rooted in bodily existence with all dangers that this implies.
—Slavoj Žižek, Pandemic 2: Chronicles of a Time Lost (p. 14).
Touch is never so obvious as when confronted with its opposite—the untouchable.
—Richard Kearney, Touch: Recovering Our Most Vital Sense (p. 133).
It has been just over a year since the United States went into lockdown over the Covid-19 pandemic. The phrase “social distancing” entered our common discourse. Some preferred “physical distancing.” Regardless of the chosen phrase, the meaning was clear and related to how Covid-19 was transmitted. Stay away from gatherings. When it is necessary to enter a public space, such as a grocery store, maintain a distance of at least 6 feet. As I wrote early on in the first of three parts over at the blog Hermeneutical Movements, “With social distancing, we are being directed specifically to avoid the sensation of touch. Wash your hands. Do not touch others. Stay 6 feet apart so that the microscopic body of COVID-19 does not touch your body or from you the body of another.”
The situation led us to do what people tend to do as an outlet. We expressed ourselves on social media. Feeds were awash with memes and varied types of posts expressing all the differing viewpoints on the crisis and the intense emotion that accompanied those views. A very regular theme, obviously so, was about not being able to see or touch those we love who were outside of our households. It is important to note that “see” here means to see in proximate physical space. “Seeing” was something that in many ways increased during the pandemic through the medium of real-time video chat. “Zoom,” one particular platform, became the catch all word, although it was one platform among many, such as FaceTime, Webex, and others. I was reminded of when I was a kid when “Hoover,” a brand of vacuum, became the synonymous with “vacuum cleaner” regardless of the brand (“I am going to grab the Hoover from the closet and sweep the carpet.”).
Yes, we did a lot of “seeing” each other. We were suddenly having weekly get togethers over video chat with friends and family we might have rarely seen prior to that. But when we say things like, “I am going to see the doctor” or “I will be seeing a friend for dinner” or, when we start dating someone, “I am seeing so-and-so,” what we really mean is that we are going to be in physical proximity in a shared space—the doctor’s office, a restaurant, or being together frequently with a new flame.
When people reacted to not being able to see or touch loved ones, they were reacting to having to stay physically away from them. As human beings, we need physical closeness. Whether with one another, outdoor spaces, or animals, we need the corporeal experience of an other. Back in the day, before cell phones, phone company advertisements told us that long distance was “the next best thing to being there” and to “reach out and touch someone.” These advertisements exploited our most primordial human need—the need to touch and be touched. Today, Zooming might be construed as the next best thing to being there. But there is no mistaking, long distance phone calls or video chatting cannot replace “being there.” These may be the next best thing, but we all know that being there is the best thing.
So it is quite reasonable that people would have passionate reactions to guidelines and directives that we quarantine and to distance at least 6 feet from those outside of our immediate household. I recall at the time hearing people take great offense. How horrible, for example, to tell a grandchild not to hug grandpa and grandma! The very idea! The notion was implied that somehow the state was seeking to control human intimacy and separate us from one another.
Then there were those who questioned the reality of the danger of Covid-19. Hey, if there really is a deadly virus, why are there not biohazard containers to dispose of them?! This question implies that Covid-19 must not truly be the danger it is claimed to be or there would be proper disposal containers. One need not be an infectious disease expert to answer this or similar questions. Yet, people persisted asking them anyway and, of course, such questions fueled outlandish conspiracy theories about the virus.
It would be nice, ostensibly, to live in a world without nuance, in which pesky variables in existence did not force us to use prudential judgment in the face of less-than-ideal circumstances. The crucial question is whether Covid-19 is an extremely deadly virus. We know that it is (if after all this time you are not clear on that point, I do not know what to say). Of course, our “default setting” is to want to be together. We want to hug each other when we meet and when we say goodbye. We want to express our love for those close to us. But in other contexts, we all understand that there are times when because of our love for another, we do not touch. Why is it so difficult to understand why we need to refrain from touch in a Covid-19 world?
If someone is sick at work, we tell them to go home and stay away! We want to avoid getting sick. If someone has a cold, we say “don’t breathe on me!” We tell people to cover their mouths when they cough and to use their elbow not their hands. School teachers, when asking for help with supplies, always have anti-bacterial wipes on the lists to keep the classroom sanitary and avoid illness spreading in the classroom. We all understand these things. Social distancing guidelines and restrictions on gathering in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic are no more, no less than this common wisdom, only more intense, proportionate to the danger this virus poses.
So, yes. We want to touch. But sometimes we understand that we must not. Under ordinary circumstances, we express love with touch. Under out-of-the-ordinary circumstances, loving others sometimes means we express our love and care for others and their well-being by not touching them.
Consider the Žižek quotation at the top of this article. “The pandemic reminds us that we remain firmly rooted in bodily existence with all dangers that this implies.” No matter how technological we become, how much we engage in virtual activities, no matter how many Zoom meetings we participate in, our existence is in the flesh. The body must be nourished and hydrated, or it dies. Sickness is in the body. Viruses affect the body. When we stub our toe in the middle of the night on our way to the bathroom, we become very aware of our bodily existence. Living in and through the body is so basic to our existence, we go through our day without thinking about it. That is, until something, as Žižek says, reminds us. Also, as he notes, bodily life is dangerous. You can get sick. You can be in an accident.
Likewise, like so many things, when we cannot have it, we want it. To refer to Kearney’s words at the top of this post, “Touch is never so obvious as when confronted with its opposite—the untouchable.” Kearney says in the same chapter of his book, “The more touch is impossible, the more one wants it and appreciates how vital it is to our being,” and “The rarer tactile experience became, the more it was valued.”
Kearney notes that our embodiment is primal. It is true that when we are denied touch, we become very aware of how important it is. I am now teaching all my classes online. While it is necessary for my safety and the safety of my students, I miss interacting with them in the classroom. A fellow academic told me recently that she likes to make cookies for her students and bring them to class. She is also teaching online and misses giving that simple gesture of love. But the pandemic has created a situation that the most loving thing to do is not touch.
I have students who have contracted Covid-19. What if my classes were in person? Before knowing they had it, they would have brought it to class with them, endangering their fellow students and me, their professor. While I would rather be with them, I understand that it is better that I am not. I may not like it and wish to return to normal, but wisdom says this is best for now. In order to return to touch, we must avoid it as much as possible for now.
Thankfully, we are getting closer. The vaccines are being distributed. We will reach herd immunity. When we get back to “normal” life or whatever a post-pandemic world will look like, let us not forget what it is to be “rooted in bodily existence” and how “vital it is to our being.” The world will continue to grow more virtual and technological, not less. This will benefit us in many ways, certainly. But we are never not bodily beings. While I would rather the Covid-19 pandemic had not been, there are many lessons to learn from it. Basic to them all is that we are tactile beings.
Yes, hug your loved ones. Maybe even more often. Do other things, too. Go outside more often. Put your phone away. Hug a tree. Take more walks. In whatever way you choose to get in touch with your body does not matter. Just get in touch.