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※2020年6月1日更新
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みなさま、引き続き安全にお過ごしください。

Together and Apart: On the powerful essence of social distancing

Sunflower-in-a-desert
Image by klimkin from Pixabay

Hello from the Inside,

Today I woke up to face another day alone. I checked the news as I often do now, with a mix of dread, anxiety, and outlandish hope that it will all somehow be magically over. However, I was struck by the fact that every choice you and I make today will have some effect later on. Maybe for myself, or my friend who is a little bit older, or my partner, or my coworker, or a customer. Maybe for some random person in the street, or the cashier at the grocery store. And then the decisions that I make are tossed in with the decisions my neighbors make, and the rest of the city makes, and the decisions the government makes. Spiraling out from there, we as an entire species, an entire planet, are merged together into one giant chaotic butterfly effect. 

Our actions don’t just physically affect others but reach across time to affect people and societies in the future too. I guess this has always been the case, but this pandemic has a way of really clarifying certain things that we have long taken for granted. One of those things may be society itself. But “society” is bit of a grand, overused term, so let’s break it down into socialization and relationships: social interaction, social unity, how we affect others and are in turn affected by them.

 For years now we’ve given ourselves over to socialization via technology. We used apps to date, apps to hail taxis, apps to talk with Mom, apps to go shopping, apps to share stories and pictures. Technology was supposed to free up our time but instead we used the surplus leisure time to spend more time on technology: endlessly binge-watching, endlessly scrolling, endlessly trolling, endless clicking. Hyper-individualization. Maybe we’ve been sleepwalking towards social distancing this whole time. 

At Nazobako we have been conscious of this for a long time. We’ve always advertised ourselves as a sort of “technology-free” space. Customers could stuff their phones away in our lockers and spend an hour of their time focusing on the “present-ness” of the moment–the puzzles, the people they came with, the feelings of excitement and wonder. Our customers could actually spend that “quality time” with friends, family, and coworkers, absent of any distracting smartphones and app alerts.

Now, however, we are confronted by a situation in which physical proximity and socialization can be dangerous. Cities that were once densely packed with people are now empty. And all we are left with is ourselves (and those who live with us) and our technology. In an ironic twist of fate, we are being shown the world that we were choosing for ourselves, and are being forced, quite literally, to stare out our own reflections. 

Social distancing, however much we had been inadvertently practicing it before though, is a product of this coronavirus epidemic. And so it takes on, in my opinion, a very powerful meaning. Think about it: we are all social distancing to save each other. We are, throughout the whole world, choosing to sacrifice socialization, human connection, physical contact, in order to potentially save other peoples’ lives. People who we might not even know, and possibly people in other countries who we never will. 

There is power in that. There is power in the ways we are molding technology to fit a more socially human present–using it to connect more, share our truths more, unite more. People are using Zoom to hang out with the entire extended family as well as have meetings with socially distant coworkers. Friends are reaching out more. Virtual parties and gatherings are a thing.

 There is power too in the fact that we are watching the world deal with this at the same time, that in the news we are seeing other countries and other cultures facing the same exact crisis, and that we can watch people in entirely different places singing together on balconies and cheering for their healthcare workers. See also the rainbows being plastered on windows, another particularly potent symbol of this harmony through separatedness.

I feel intensely alone right now. Like many of the staff at Nazobako, I come from a foreign country. Many of us, myself included, don’t know when we will be able to go home, or when will be able to see our families again. That leaves us intensely separated from our loved ones. And as I mentioned in my last post, not knowing how long this will last is one of the hardest parts of dealing with epidemic mentally. 

The silver lining in all of this social distancing is that we are doing it for the sake of each other. By sacrificing physical proximity we have the power to reach out and touch humanity in love. We are showing how much we care about each other by withdrawing. And in the meantime, while there is a mental health cost, I think that we are learning what technology should really be used for: human connection. 

There are of course some caveats to the above. Many are still unable to work from home or take time off. Xenophobia and racism are at large. Inequalities loom, especially as this health crisis continues over long periods of time and lockdowns increase. My goal is not to paint a picture of some “kumbaya” perfect world, and I hope to address some of these issues in later posts. Rather, I want to point out some of the beauty taking place, and to maybe find a possible way forward. 

After this, where will we go and what will fall back to? My hope is that we learn to connect more, and that we no longer take ourselves and each other for granted. I hope that we never lose sight of what it is that makes us most human–our connection with other people–and that we never forget what we are willing to give up in order to keep it. 

Reach out to people during this time. Chat with an ol friend who you haven’t spoken to in years. Check in on a friend who is maybe a little older or a little more alone. Offer support to someone who can’t work from home. Because we may be alone, but we are always together in this fight.

Stay safe, stay home, stay strong, and stay connected.

With love,

Lee and the staff at Nazobako Tokyo/Invite Japan

The staff at Nazobako practicing joyful social distancing

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