A recent, socially distanced dinner gathering with a few friends around a backyard fire pit helped shed light for me on that strong impulse driving folks we write off as witless covidiots partying in spit-close proximity on beaches, at poolsides and in bars. Stupidity as the source of such behavior is too easy a toss-off dismissal. Youthful illusions of invulnerability? Maybe. Yet, who but the most outlier of kids thinks with foresight about the chances of spreading disease to an aging or at-risk parent, relative or elder? Few indeed. Active resistance in the cause of personal freedom? Okay, yes, there’s that bunch of numbskulls.
What we concluded with our friends, however, is that this behavior lies at the core of our glorious flourishing as a species: an instinct for full, proximal, intimate presence with one another. Like all social animals, humans developed in tight clusters, urgently together, interdependent and ingenious from necessity. By nature, early humans prioritized (and still do) three things: food and the urgent effort to acquire it; watching one another’s back; and, procreating to assure the continuation of our kind. It’s in groups that our ancestors best fended off predators. It’s in groups they slept safely at night and labored during daylight. And, right now, it’s in groups that we’re compelled to seek solace from a viral enemy that’s evolved to co-opt our greatest motivator – needfully close connection with one another – as its keenest ally.
Barely warranting creature status, the coronavirus has weaponized for its own survival the chinks in our long-honed physical and social defenses, turning on its head our otherwise life-sustaining civic and social nature. What we’re experiencing as a result – and bashing out among ourselves – is how to keep in our clutches the benefits built of deeply ingrained habits and needs. Society, as we have always known it leaves each of us at some level of risk. Now, however, the everyday character of human association and close cooperation place us in alien peril.
So, we’re adapting. Some among us more cautiously, with a greater conscious calculation of the survival and contagion odds. Others employ one of nature’s most common survival tools, denial, the psychological trick that helps hold at bay the problems of grim reality. Still, even amid steaming, stinking piles of so many Deniers in Chief and their propaganda, our adeptness at fending off threats and discovering vectors of comfort and security has kicked in with a vengeance. All hail the doctors, nurses, scientists and caregivers seeking treatments, vaccines and cures for this viral scourge ravaging humanity. And, all hail those keen at fashioning ways to safely express the primal need of our species for securing comfort and succor in the company of others.
Few of us feel nurtured, and many feel frustrated by the necessary, but claustrophobic two-dimensionality of flat-screen Zoom gatherings. This first-stage adjustment, though useful, but only up to a point. We’re now experimenting with (mostly) cautious “re-openings” of schools, eating places and low-contact environments. And, we’re finding ways to see and visit with one another in closer proximity in parks and public spaces, on patios and sidewalks to soak-in the full four-dimensional flourish and fulfillment of friendly (mask-covered) faces that give us an approximation of connection’s buzz.
Even intimacy modulated by face-wear and a few feet of distance beyond our primitively programmed preferences revives our strained craving for contact. From this, in the long term, my hope is that we draw DNA-deep lessons in knowing, valuing and loving better our social and civic selves, which – a different form of denial, I think – we too often take for granted because, well, that’s what humans do. It makes living easier. It’s our nature. And nowadays our nature, hungered after by a microscopic predator, is in no way ours to blithely ignore.