As many of us return to physical campuses this fall, mostly without masks, we are following the advice of classic sociologists: humans need proximity. It’s worth the trouble to regain this aspect of pre-pandemic life.
As for me, I anticipate seeing students again with joy, but being on campus also brings the strong possibility of less desirable interactions such as a colleague who slurps coffee or a student who types too loud in class. You might think the last year and half of social isolation and digitally mediated work was a lifesaver: no slurping. As it turns out, I need proximity with other people, including those I find annoying, confusing, and even unpleasant. I’m not particularly extroverted; I’m just human.
This social fact has been made apparent during the pandemic at the price of thousands of lives. The Wall Street Journal reports that overdoses rose nearly 30 percent in 2020, mostly due to fentanyl contamination in other drugs. Drug treatment expert Adam Maslowski attributes the spike to isolation and life disruption, among other factors. He stated, “A lot of people love Zoom, but there’s something about face-to-face contact.”
Sociologists refer to that “something” as the “compulsion of proximity.” Why do world leaders, with all available technology, fly around the world for relatively brief in-person meetings? It isn’t just for the photo ops. Proximity establishes trust and provides context for assessing credibility. It is also vital for moving through deeply challenging human experiences such as conflict or grief.
Those who turned to drugs are canaries in the mine of social isolation, showing how much humans needed proximity to cope during the pandemic. I’ve used fentanyl myself, just one time. My labor and delivery nurse said, “If you take this, you’ll still feel most of the pain, but you won’t care.” I did feel pain, but without fear or the desire to escape. Fentanyl helped me give in to the inevitable.
During the pandemic, illegal drugs are an understandable support for fragile and sometimes absent human sociality. They promise to do what human contact does: relieve pain and help us endure what we can’t avoid. They help people get by, in a pinch, but of course they also lead to death. Drugs deceptively promise to simplify the complex mix of pain and pleasure that is human existence.
Hyperintensive digital work environments helped professionals get by, in an extraordinary time. It’s become a norm for professionals to claim ease and comfort with Zoom and with shifting work online. A friend working 100% remote commented, “If some people need to be with others, that’s cool. I’m not like that. I hope to work in my basement until I retire.” If the latent message is about employment preservation, then at least there’s some sense to it. We’re kidding ourselves, however, about digital simulacra being preferable in many or most settings. Leaning on the logic of efficiency, we often argue that we can handle matters quickly, and surely we’ll talk in person when we really need to. We should question our capacity to discern our real need for interaction, because our very assumptions and perceptions are shaped by our habits. It’s not unlike the opioid user telling herself she will only use drugs when necessary, and when the situation warrants, she’ll stop.
A meeting with colleagues, or a classroom with students, is a cacophony of stimuli, some pleasurable and some not. The pleasurable parts establish trust, harmony, and sometimes even communitas, the anthropological term for the pinnacle of social experience – connectedness that verges on ethereal.
The frustrating, confusing, and agitating parts – even the slurping – also play a vital role. They motivate change, spark a desire for solutions, and inspire virtue development in humility, patience, and gentleness. Together, pleasure and pain in human interaction spark creativity, delight, and frustration, some of the wonders of human experience.
The compulsion of proximity brings mother and newborn infant together, world leaders in decision making, and preserves human life as a truly effective salve for loneliness and despair. As the pandemic gives way to a relatively normal fall semester, I’m worried about my capacity to get through an entire workday filled with real students in real classrooms. I won’t be able to put them on mute or pretend to be engaged while playing with my cat with the video feed turned off. Three semesters of pandemic-altered professional life have cultivated a preference for the “cooler” pleasures of technology over the “warmer” joys of intimate sociality.1
Human contact brings a loss of control, inefficiency, frustration, and it requires a significant expenditure of energy and attention.2 These costs are worth it, even up to the cost of tuition, room and board at our residential colleges. There’s an intimacy in learning to navigate time and space with a sleepy student, a tone-deaf colleague, or even an untrustworthy leader. This “intimate sociality” pays off in decision-making, collegiality, learning, and faith development. We come into existence via human proximity, and we deny its compulsion at our peril.
- Roger Friedland and Deirdre Boden, NowHere: Space, Time and Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)
- Jacques Ellul and William Vanderburg. 2011. Perspectives on Our Age: Jacques Ellul Speaks on His Life and Work. New York: House of Anansi Press. http://www.SLQ.eblib.com.au/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=771779.