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Returning to Radical Presence: Lessons from the Pandemic – Part 8

This is Part 8 of a series – click here to read other Parts!

In Part 6 and Part 7, we addressed the general need we all have for support structures in the wake of the pandemic. For specific examples of these support structures, first we looked at ways we can restore a sense of sacred time in our lives:

  • Hosting events focused on reorienting from the Pandemic Era to the Recovery Era

  • Approaching special occasions with new level of intentionality

  • Experimenting with regular spiritual practices that give us life

  • Establishing a sustainable rhythm for sticking to these practices

We also looked at specific examples of restoring sacredness to the places in our lives, especially our homes:

  • Thinking of travel as a sacred, spiritual experience (pilgrimage), cultivating homes away from home (havens), and relieving the pressure for our homes to be all-purpose places

  • Listening more attentively to the needs of our bodies (our most intimate homes)

  • Consciously limiting our daily use of technology, which can distort our sense of home

  • Resisting the drift into fully- or even mostly-virtual workplaces, schools, communities, and social lives

These action steps – just like the steps for emotional-spiritual catharsis we covered in Parts 4 and 5 – are essential to finding Recovery, Reengagement, and Reimagination coming out of the pandemic. But, like catharsis, they’re not enough.

In this series, we have yet to address head-on what likely has been and will continue to be the most prevalent need in the Recovery Era and beyond: the need to restore relationships and community. Let’s dive in.

Restoring Relationships & Community:

Moving through Disconnection into Reconnection

Nearly every person alive has endured profound upheavals in their social lives since the beginning of 2020.

In those early weeks, as communities and governments began to comprehend the enormity of the COVID health crisis, and as the subsequent cascade of restrictions took effect, we were all suddenly thrust into relative isolation. Soon we found ourselves overhauling our social lives: social-distancing, donning personal protective equipment, and migrating everything from board meetings to birthday parties into the virtual world. For some this seemed exciting or promising at first, but within a few months the costs to human health and happiness became clear.

In-person contact and conversation are basic needs, almost as essential as food and shelter. So when our circles of touch and talk shrank drastically, when our usually-overlapping lives fractured and diverged, it left us socially stunted.[1] People cannot learn or grow very well without each other. This is especially true of those who became most isolated – bereaved people, children, adolescents, elders, and people with many kinds of disabilities.

Loneliness reached pandemic proportions.[2] Something as fundamental to human existence as exposing our faces, voices, and hands to others suddenly became perilous. Now behind masks, screens, and windows, we all became more anonymous to one another. And even as we became physically insulated, we were now glued to our screens, news, and social media, mentally and emotionally exposed to constant reminders of the mounting trauma on all sides. So, without a critical mass of relationships surrounding us, we had to bear the weights of numbness, despair, sorrow, and fear alone.

Many of us began to collapse in on ourselves. Some folks, additionally strained by the new demands of work, parenting, and caregiving, became too overwhelmed and burnt out to truly connect with anyone anymore. Some fell prey to depression and anxiety, drained of the ability to experience life as more than doom-scrolling. Some dissociated to cope, trying to hide from the news and tune out the pain, even turning to modes of escapism and addiction. Some got trapped in the echo chambers of their own minds or of an ideology, seeking someone to blame for their imprisonment, at worst descending into bitterness, paranoia, and animosity. Some found ways to share about their struggles with others and find healing; others did not, largely suffering in silence.

This all adds up to a great crisis of disconnection, a great rupture and rending in the fabric of belonging. More than anything else, this is what we need to recover from in the Recovery Era. More than anything else, this is the source of our grief, and where our passion is most needed. It's where we've lost the most, and yet now have the most to gain.

And this recovery is not something that will simply happen, without our conscious effort. As we covered in Part 2, history shows that it is unwise to expect there will be a sudden, organic renewal of relationship and community after a global communal trauma. Now that the worst of the virus has passed and in-person gathering is back to pre-pandemic levels of safety, it can be tempting for us to assume the fabric of reconnection will simply re-weave itself.

Here’s the problem: it won’t. For evidence, all we need do is start by asking ourselves, “Do I feel true reconnection yet? Do most other people seem to?” My guess is our answers here do not inspire confidence in a laissez-faire attitude going forward.

Nor does the data advise us to outsource recovery. In the short-term, we’re on track to be better off than in the worst of the pandemic, but certainly worse off than we were before COVID struck.[3] This is especially daunting news, given that our crisis of belonging preexists the Pandemic Era.[4] And in the long-term, as with all trauma, we need to be wary of underestimating the lingering consequences of this time of heightened crisis.

Relief is not the same thing as recovery, and cannot substitute for active repair. If we don’t tend to them, the wounds inflicted on our social lives during this time are certain to fester and infect other parts of our lives. We need to set out to do the re-weaving, or it won’t happen.

If we do nothing else to usher the Recovery Era along, we must restore relationships and community. So what does this look like?

Touchstone 8

Reconnecting with RADICAL PRESENCE:

Let's Be Real

Have you ever been with a friend or someone else you love, and you’re just in the moment with them, and vice versa? That’s all radical presence is. You’re simply in each other’s company, concentrating on them, not thinking about other things, just belonging together.

We do this with other people all the time, and we need to. In Part 6 and Part 7 we discussed how a sense of time and place, respectively, help us feel real. We can think of radical presence as stepping into the most important kind of time and place, one that necessitates its own category: being in the time and place that is a human being’s focus of attention.

And just as much as our environment, this presence with another person is fundamental to knowing we’re real. This is what we’ve learned from decades of studying mirror neurons and the formation of infants’ brains.[5,6] Our relationships not only make us who we are, but make us in the most literal way. Nowhere else can we be reminded so poignantly that we matter and have an impact.

We also do this belonging with our own selves. If you’ve ever just journaled or meditated, or had to answer a deep question about your inner world, or just appreciated or contemplated your life for a minute, you’ve practiced radical presence with yourself, simulating mirror neurons. This is just as important a time and place, and just as foundational to our sense of being real. And you can also tap into radical presence via a task, whether related to work, play, creativity, learning, etc. Letting your attention become fully absorbed in any way, entering a flow-state or mindfulness of any kind, reminds us how substantial and alive we are.

How did the pandemic impact all of this? What’s the opposite of radical presence? These questions have the same answer: distraction.

The Discontent of Distraction

Parts 6 and 7 of this series also dealt with distraction. In Touchstone 6 we discussed the scattered attention that came with our disorientation in “COVID-time.” And in Touchstone 7 we discussed how this has played out in the “everything-from-home" paradigm of technology substituting for real places, straining our focus. But in this Touchstone, we’ll look more closely at the distractions inherent in relying on tech as we interface in our most intimate relationships – with family, friends, partners, and ourselves.

To stay in touch with many of our closest people during the pandemic, we were forced to rely on phone and video calling. Despite hopes that these would be a worthy substitute for face-to-face conversation, they didn’t quite compare. People reported discontentedness with these forms of communication compared with in-person contact, and summarily drifted out of intimate relationship at a higher rate.[7,8]

Perhaps the biggest reason for this dissatisfaction is that phone and video calling doesn’t work on mirror neurons nearly as well as in-person conversation.[9] To our bodies and brains, it simply doesn’t feel as real or intimate to interact with someone via tech. These tools don’t allow us to take in everything that comes with someone's holistic physical presence – touch, body language, minute facial expressions, voice inflection, breath, pheromones, and what we might call emotional vibes, or the subtle heat and electric charge we feel being next to a living person.

Nor does phone and video calling enable us to bond over a shared kinesthetic task, which is how so much of our relating happens. People on either end of a phone call can talk to each other while they each do tasks of their own, or while they’re playing video games on the same server, but they can’t do most other things they’d otherwise be doing together. Further, when we aren’t doing the same task together in person, it’s much easier for our independent tasks to become pure distraction. The bustle of chores on the other end of a call registers as noise and an averted gaze, rather than something that facilitates radical presence.

And then there’s the distraction that comes with our devices themselves. It’s all too easy to check texts, emails, social media, and more while someone is talking on a phone or video call. Yet we’d be careful not to do such a thing if the person was making a bid for our presence in-person – it would look like we were rudely ignoring them. Even if we aren’t actively scrolling through our phones during a conversation, how often does the thought of awaiting notifications divert us from being in the moment? For most people, it’s often – our concentration is high-jacked so frequently, we barely notice anymore.

Of course our devices infringe even more so on radical presence with ourselves. How often do any of us do 30 minutes of an uninterrupted, tech-less, contemplative activity anymore, whether reading, meditating, walking, or simply sitting and thinking? What does it say about us that we eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom with these gadgets? What inner peace and internally-generated creativity do we lose out on from such distractedness? For evidence of the steep cost, all we need do is look at the research on deterioration of our attention spans.[10] Or for even more of a wake-up-call, we can look at the impact that ubiquitous tech has on those who are both most distracted and have the most to lose: our young people.[11]

We can’t blame this particular problem on COVID – we've been ceding attention to tech and losing touch with radical presence for many years. The pandemic just enabled and normalized tendencies we were already drifting into. But now we have a choice. We don’t have to accept how much of our lives have been claimed by distraction.

So how do we reclaim radical presence with each other and with ourselves?

Seizing the Moment, Closing the Social Distance

As we covered under Touchstone 7, we need to resist the newly-normalized "everything-from-home" standard. We also can go a step further, and resist the "devices-always-on-hand" standard:

  • We can practice silencing and stowing our devices more often, especially when we’re in a conversation, taking time for solitude, or engaged in any other life-giving task.

  • We can allocate a few dedicated minutes each hour to checking and responding to notifications, and otherwise turning them off, rather than always being available to them.

  • We can even practice fasting or detoxing from tech for a whole day, morning, afternoon, or evening at a time.

But it isn’t about simply depriving ourselves of devices. It’s much more effective to actively give others the gift of radical presence:

  • We can practice mindfulness more often, simply being more attentive to the moment, our actions and interactions.

  • A few things can help with this, like reciting a mantra, focusing on your breathing, or carrying a talisman – a small object you always keep in your pocket that reminds you to be intentional.

And the best training ground for being in the moment is always our own radical presence with ourselves:

  • We can practice taking more time for stillness, silence, and reflection. I always recommend just starting with one stretch of 30 minutes during the workweek and another one on the weekend.

  • This can take the form of meditation, prayer, journaling, or some other kind of gentle contemplative or spiritual practice, like going for a walk or reading a book.

  • During these times, it can be helpful to reflect on the things in your life that really matter: the people you’re connected to, simple pleasures, anything and anyone you’re grateful for.

These are the things that most require your radical presence, and that will restore your feeling of being grounded, real, and peaceful.

Are your phone, computer, TV, etc. on this list of absolute, non-negotiable life essentials? My guess is, no. For almost all of us, they take too much and don’t give enough in return. So let’s put these devices in their place, at the periphery of our lives where they belong, rather than keeping them so central.

During the Pandemic Era, we had less say in how much we’d be distracted by our little glowing rectangles. But now we have a clear choice. Let’s release the clutter infringing on our attention, and turn toward what matters with radical presence.

Stay tuned for Part 9: Support Structures – Village Life!

If you’re looking for more practical insights before then, check out the Lessons from the Pandemic Hub on my website. And if you’re looking for ways to help the Recovery, Reengagement, and Reimagination effort ASAP, share that Hub page and share this blog with people you know, especially if they’re struggling with these things or are a leader who can make a difference in your community.

Works Cited, Further Reading
  1. Pasquini, G., & Keeter, S. (2022, December 12). At least four-in-ten U.S. adults have faced high levels of psychological distress during COVID-19 pandemic. Pew Research Center.

  2. Ernst, M., Niederer, D., Werner, A. M., Czaja, S. J., Mikton, C., Ong, A. D., Rosen, T., Brähler, E., & Beutel, M. E. (2022). Loneliness before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: A systematic review with meta-analysis. American Psychologist, 77(5), 660–677.

  3. Hewlett, E., Takino, S., Nishina , Y., & Prinz, C. (2021, May 12). Tackling the mental health impact of the COVID-19 crisis: An integrated, whole-of-society response. OECD.

  4. McCormack, W. (2020, September 17). From I to we. The New Republic.

  5. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, March 7). Mirror neuron. Wikipedia.

  6. Rayson, H., Bonaiuto, J. J., Ferrari, P. F., & Murray, L. (2017, September 15). Early maternal mirroring predicts infant motor system activation during facial expression observation. Nature News.

  7. Lippke, S., Fischer, M. A., & Ratz, T. (2021, January 12). Physical activity, loneliness, and meaning of friendship in young individuals – a mixed-methods investigation prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic with three cross-sectional studies. Frontiers.

  8. Patulny, R., & Bower, M. (2022, June 23). Beware the “loneliness gap”? Examining emerging inequalities and long-term risks of loneliness and isolation emerging from COVID-19. Wiley Online Library.

  9. Isabella, G., & Carvalho, H. C. (2016). Emotional contagion and socialization: reflection on virtual interaction. Emotions, Technology, and Behaviors, 63–82.

  10. MacKay, J. (2018, October 17). Communication overload: Most workers can't go 6 minutes without checking email. RescueTime Blog.

  11. Twenge, J. M. (2018). iGen why today's super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy-and completely unprepared for adulthood*: *(and what this means for the rest of us). Atria Paperback.

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