Linda Besner is a writer living in Toronto. Her most recent book is Feel Happier in Nine Seconds.
When astronauts return from outer space after long missions, their eyeballs have flattened. Their legs are brittle from loss of bone mass, their faces are puffy and, after months of zero gravity, their tongues feel heavy – it’s an effort to talk in Earth’s atmosphere. After months of isolation, their social skills are often similarly impaired. For many people who experience long periods of isolation – members of polar expeditions, prisoners – re-entry is marked by irritability and depression. The vast distance between themselves and others doesn’t just vanish when physical proximity is restored.
The past year has been a long, strange orbit. Those who have spent long periods isolated at home have experienced physical changes: The increased screen time has strained our eyes, the loss of habitual movement has affected our circulation, and the improvised home workstations have cramped our necks and distorted our postures. But as we prepare for loosened restrictions and ramped up vaccination numbers, it’s the deterioration of our social dexterity that will make for a difficult re-entry.
Our success in adapting to isolation has a price: Over time, the feeling of missing other people starts to mutate into a more profound alienation. A self is a social construct, created through interaction, and these months alone have not only robbed us of the society of others, but of the aspects of ourselves that we shape in collaboration with other people. After a year of training ourselves to shield against the invisible threat posed by other bodies, reopening means grappling with the disturbance to our sense of self posed by other minds.
I haven’t made eye contact with my family in almost a year. We do a video call every week: my mother, my father, my sister and I, all in different places. I look at their faces, and they look at mine, but we’re always looking at cross-purposes: The camera is above the screen, so when I look at the illuminated boxes holding the people I love, it seems to them as if I am looking slightly down.
It’s a problem tech companies started working on even before the pandemic. In 2019, Apple started beta-testing a feature called FaceTime Attention Correction. It makes a map of your face and adjusts the position of your eyes in real time, so that when you look at the screen, you seem to be looking directly into the camera and into the eyes of the person on the other end of the call.
The long period in which I’ve been literally incapable of looking into people’s eyes has probably produced effects of which I’m not even aware – my brain has been starved of its normal patterns. Making eye contact and following another person’s gaze are among the first social acts in a human being’s life; before babies develop language, they learn to read their parents’ faces. And synchronizing eye gaze seems to be suggestive of deeper levels of neural synchrony.
Recently, some scientists have been advocating for greater recognition and further study of what is called “the social brain” – the brain as it works in tandem with others. It turns out we literally get on a wavelength with the people around us as our brain activity enters into matching rhythms. As opportunities for neural synchrony have diminished over the past year, we’ve fallen out of step. As the U.S. National Social Anxiety Center put it in September, “every single one of us is now socially awkward to a certain extent.” People may need to relearn how to look each other in the eye – a behaviour that people with social anxiety struggle with at the best of times. Too little and you might seem evasive, untrustworthy. Too much and it’s creepy.
Similarly, determining how physically close to get to other people is a subtle art. Over the past year, public-health authorities have offered a precise measure: six feet. But in ordinary times, preferences are highly individual and contextual. “Personal space” was first theorized after a curator at the Zurich Zoo in the 1950s observed that animals will flee to a set distance when another animal enters their space. For humans, researchers eventually identified four zones: the intimate, the personal, the social and the public.
The intimate zone is so close you lose perspective: “The nose is seen as over large and may look distorted, as will other features such as the lips, teeth and tongue,” remarked American psychologist Edward Hall. For those who live with romantic partners, this Cubist portrait has been the defining vista of the past year. But “social distancing” turns out to be a bit of a misnomer in psychological terms: In general, six feet away is beyond the social zone. We’ve actually been “public distancing” – keeping everyone in the coldest zone, the one we maintain between ourselves and people we don’t know and don’t want to know.
I want to know people again. It isn’t yet clear how close this summer will bring us to a semblance of our previous lives, especially if hesitancy or further hiccups in the rollout hold back widespread vaccination. The variants of concern could still send us back into lockdown at any time. But there is, at least, a hope that it is almost time to relearn on a societal scale how to handle personal space again without external guidelines.
Underneath some of the more obvious social wobbles we can all expect – the shifty eyes, the graceless entrances and exits from conversations, the inevitable mismatches in comfort levels – is perhaps a more profound and uncomfortable social truth. Humans are almost pathologically adaptable. It is one of our greatest strengths as a species, but, as environmentalists have often pointed out, it’s also one of our most frightening weaknesses.
A famous series of photos from Key West, Fla., shows groups of sport fishers proudly displaying their catches. In the photos from the 1950s, the fish are enormous: giant groupers taller than a person. Through the 1960s and 1970s, the fish dwindle in size. By the 1980s, there are no groupers at all; the fish are snappers. By the 2000s, the fish in the photos are only a foot long. What does stay the same size are the beaming smiles on the faces of the people. They don’t realize what they’ve lost.
The experience of rolling lockdowns has forced us to make meaningful lives for ourselves in the absence of friends and families. We’ve had to adapt our ideas of what our lives should look like. They’ve shrunk – painfully at first, and then, after a while, people forgot that we’re living through a nightmare. It stops feeling strange not to see each other. There’s a certain betrayal in managing to survive more or less intact: The people I love have learned not to need me.
Oddly, the collective scale of this past year’s dystopia makes it hard to talk about. The self becomes at the same time huge and strangely muted. The enormity of the loss of life, the loss of security and the loss of illusion is beyond what any one person’s narrative could contain. It seems trite to try to describe what everyone already knows – but do they know it?
Each of us is living through a version of a shared catastrophe, but each version is unique in its quality of subjective experience. Paradoxically, the incommunicability of an event whose contours are well known drives me into a kind of solipsism: The shocking part is that these dystopic shifts are happening to me. The shape of the envelope itself is the dimension that can’t be relayed, because no one else can occupy my personal egocentric position. Their “me” will always be someone else.
On the bright side, I will probably quickly forget to feel strange. Or rather, if there is continued emotional distance between myself and others, I will forget to think of it as estrangement. In the same way that, over the course of the past year, a new narrative has closed over our heads and we have adjusted to a different horizon, we will likely adapt to whatever comes next.
While readjusting to marriages, jobs and substances back on Earth has been too much for some astronauts (after walking out onto the “magnificent desolation” of the moon, Buzz Aldrin famously developed alcoholism and worked as a car salesman in Texas), others report a phenomenon called the Overview Effect. It’s a feeling that’s half transcendence, half renewed responsibility sparked by seeing the Earth from outside our atmosphere.
Speaking over a space-to-Earth connection during a mission in early 2019, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques described the planet to people standing on it. “It’s just quietly spinning in the black velvet of space with this kind of bright blue halo surrounding it. That’s the air that protects us from space and that harbours all the life and the pattern of clouds and thunder. It’s just alive. You can see it’s almost breathing.”
Perhaps after this long period of distance we will be better able to recognize the unique weather each of us inhabits. The lingering strangeness may renew our ability to marvel at each other.
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