The Rituals of Isolation and Social Distance
By Mary Daily with Karen Stephenson
We mark major events in our lives — such as births, marriages or deaths –- with particular behaviors, or rituals. Besides their meaning to us as individuals and our own rites of passage, rituals signal to the larger society that a change has occurred and been marked.
Rituals are usually associated with small-scale societal changes and rarely last longer than a few weeks. But in the COVID-19 pandemic we have been experiencing, rituals are continuing over several months.
Rituals tend to have a beginning, middle and end. The beginning brings uncertainty, ambiguity and often anxiety, as we must let go of the way things were and yet are unsure of what lies ahead. So, in the initial response to the pandemic, we sheltered in place, forced to separate from society and to adopt new ways of living, communicating and staying connected. In just a few weeks, the U.S. population went from an industrious, bustling, carefree posture to one of apprehension, physical distancing, and virtual connection only. The confinement felt awkward and strange, and we were unclear about the parameters of our restriction and how to deal with the isolation.
The middle phase of a ritual requires a disassembling of what went before and brings stricter enforcement of the response. In the pandemic, scientists and epidemiologists stepped forward, and most politicians followed their guidance, choosing to base directives on scientific facts. Restaurants, bars and non-essential businesses, as well as schools, closed. Churches shuttered their places of worship and offered religious services online. Wearing protective masks became the norm and, in many cases, the mandate. Physical distancing of six to ten feet replaced handshakes and hugs. We could no longer brush by each other on the sidewalk, but sometimes had to cross the street in order to maintain a safe space around ourselves.
Now some states are ushering in what they hope will be the end stage, when our society attempts to re-enter the world in a new way of being, affecting how we travel commercially; attend church, concerts, school, and sporting events; mingle in markets and retail stores; gather on beaches and in parks.
Many unknowns remain. When the pandemic ends, will our sense of personal space have shifted in lasting ways? What will be the formula for ordering industries back into business and bringing furloughed employees back to the workplace? How will our economy respond? What will be the most effective combination of policy, practice, and scientific solutions such as a vaccine?
We look to our leaders for answers, and they are forthcoming with their mandates and recommendations, although they certainly are not all in agreement. But the solutions do not lie in anything these men and women say, but in what we the people choose to embrace, practice and ignite in others. Lasting change does not come through policy alone, but through individuals at the community level. Anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” She was at least partly right, but maybe it’s not so much about changing the world this time as about changing our place in it and by extrapolation, the way our world works. The enduring impact of this crisis is up to us.
Mary Daily is a journalist in Los Angeles.
Karen Stephenson is a Dallas-based cultural anthropologist who consults on human connectedness in today’s world.