A few days ago, I went for a run through my neighborhood, and I saw another runner. In general, local runners fall into two categories for me—friend or potential friend—since I already know most of the runners in our small town, and, if I don’t, I would like to know them. But instead of greeting this runner as usual, we both immediately crossed to opposite sides of the road. And, just in case, I held my breath.
These are strange days. The runner I passed would likely be the only person outside of my home whom I would see that day, and we regarded one another not as friends, but as potential vectors of disease. Interactions like these are profoundly destabilizing and lonely, and surely there will be long-term social ramifications of regarding one another with so much unease. But this is the moment we are in, and staying physically apart is the best way to care for one another.
Shelter in Place
At the moment, most of us are home. For some, this means occupying the same physical space as family members or roommates for more extended periods of time than usual, with the added complication of trying to get our work done in a situation not conducive to working well. For others, this means being wholly isolated from family, friends, and colleagues, and seeking human contact through technologies, like text messages and Zoom.
For all of us, there has been a decisive and fairly abrupt shift in how we typically conduct ourselves socially, since we were removed from institutions, public spaces, and group activities seemingly overnight. This shift provides an occasion to either practice constructive interactions while under the same roof, or to reconsider how we generally interact with one another outside of our homes. Maybe now is a good time to do some vision-casting for how we would like to pursue friendships or to invest in our communities in the future.
In 2000, political scientist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.(1). It is a book about the erosion of American social capital—a phenomenon he described in terms of our society becoming less wedded to the civic institutions that had previously animated much of American culture. For example, there were declining memberships in organizations such as the Knights of Columbus, labor unions, Boy Scouts, and Elk Clubs, and fewer people were voting. And, as the title of the book suggests, there were fewer bowling clubs. People were bowling more, yet bowling alone. Putnam proposed that this shift would have significant political ramifications. There would be less shared identity and reciprocity, fewer opportunities for collective reflection on cultural values, and fewer occasions to see and respond to one another’s needs.
At the time the book was published, many of these observations rang true for readers—that we were becoming increasingly less communal and more individual in our daily lives, spending more time watching television or surfing the internet, and we were less likely to affiliate with charitable organizations. Even now, many of these things seem true to me. I will confess I do not know what an Elk Club is. It sounds like something I would not want to encounter alone on a trail run—a herd of roaming Elk Clubs. But others criticized Putnam’s project for not-insignificant reasons. For example, some argued that not all civic institutions are worth preserving because membership might be exclusionary or create momentum around problematic ideas. Others pointed out that collective engagements had simply taken on different forms.
Regardless of whether Putnam’s thesis is true or complete, he started an important conversation about the forms and functions of civic life—a conversation that continues today, 20 years later. And questions such as these seem especially ripe for our current moment—when we are isolated, scrambling to connect, and wondering how to be present for one another:
- How do we typically interact with one another?
- Do we know our neighbors?
- Are we all alone here?
- Are we connected in ways that helpfully sustain democratic activity?
- Do we see and respond to one another’s needs?
Community and COVID-19
I have been thinking a lot about Putnam’s book recently because of the closing, or significant restructuring, of our participation in institutions—schools, sports, and public life. Because we are physically separated, we are all (figuratively) bowling alone. These changes may only be temporary, but I think it is telling how many people have expressed a deep sense of personal loss—rather than just a sense of inconvenience—over being removed from one another. If nothing else, these responses to quarantine communicate that our in-person communities are still vibrant and meaningful places of engagement for us. And they should be. We should be invested in our communities so we can know how best to care for one another.
At the same time, it has also been encouraging to hear how many friends have expressed that they have been re-examining a loss of connection they failed to notice while being so busy, pre-quarantine. Many are being more intentional and creative about sustaining communities from afar—such as by greeting running buddies via FaceTime before starting runs, holding synchronous courses online, organizing virtual races, or planning Zoom happy hours with friends from the past. I am personally doing a combination of all of these things, plus examining whether I am actually present with the person physically located in my house—my husband. I am trying not to allow my work (and COVID-19 googling) expand so it fills all of my waking hours.
For all of us, there has been a fairly abrupt shift in how we typically conduct ourselves socially, and this is uncomfortable, to say the least. But this shift provides an occasion to either practice constructive interactions while under the same roof, or to reconsider how we generally interact with one another. This can involve developing gratitude for normal training groups and for the people we interact with on a regular basis in the world, or encourage us to find new ways to invest in groups we never realized were so important to us prior to sheltering in place. Maybe we can come out the other side of this pandemic with deeper ties to our local running communities. And who knows? We might even check out our local Elk Clubs once all of this is over.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- What have you learned through sheltering in place about either the people with whom you’re sharing your home space or about the people you’re not seeing in person right now?
- Is your current experience shaping how you will approach relationships going forward?
- Are there any elements of your previous interactions that you’ve learned you actually prefer to live without?
Robert D. Putnam. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).