If the novel coronavirus has taught us anything, we have learned that "physical distancing" does not mean "social distancing." Human beings are simply too communal for that to happen.
Instead, we now understand just how much we need each other, especially in difficult times.
Even the experts, who first used the expression "social distancing," have had to change their language, since that phrase didn't accurately describe what was taking place. Stay six feet apart, sure; fail to notice each other, not so much.
Interestingly, at precisely the time when we've had to quarantine and keep our distance, we've discovered our natural urge to connect with others. I don't think I've ever witnessed so many people going out of their way to greet each other. Waves to neighbors across the street and the expression "how's it going?" are much more common now.
At the same time, you don't see many people looking at their phones oblivious to others, as was the case prior to the coronavirus. People are noticing each other, because in the midst of this crisis, that is something we deeply desire. From expressing our thanks to health care professionals, grocery store cashiers and restaurant workers to children leaving colorful notes with sidewalk chalk, we are demonstrating anew that we are social beings who need community.
But what will happen when we go back to some form of "normal" — whatever that means? Will we return to being more concerned about our phones than those around us? Perhaps in the future we'll learn to gently bow to each other, as many Asian cultures do, as a sign of respect, gratitude or apology. Or would greeting each other with a "thumbs up" be the way to go? I don't see us returning to the 1960s, when many flashed the peace sign to one another.
But while we're thinking about how we communicate with others, could we agree to not use the middle finger or other anger gestures in our post-coronavirus non-verbal lexicon? They certainly communicate personal outrage, but aren't good tools of conversation. I'm sure there are other offensive, "social distancing" expressions we use that should go by the wayside as well.
Maybe we should consider the African Zulu greeting "sawubona," which means "I see you." When a person uses this greeting with someone, the response is "ngikhona," which means "I am here" or sometimes translated "it is good to be seen."
This simple exchange communicates a feeling of dignity and a willingness to notice someone else's presence in the world. To be noticed by others is to have significance in life — something we can all appreciate in the midst of the coronavirus devastation. Greeting one another is the first step in human connection, even between strangers and passersby.
Ironically, while experiencing "physical distancing," I have discovered that people are "seeing" each other more. With so much negative news, this is a positive sign. So…what will happen when we reach a new normal? Will we find new ways to respect and acknowledge each other or just go back to the way things were before?
During this quarantine and physical distancing, we have the opportunity to ponder such questions. Perhaps we will become a closer community in the midst of it all.
Lowell Greathouse is a retired United Methodist minister who served local churches in Beaverton, Lake Oswego and Portland. He previously worked for United Way of the Columbia-Willamette and Community Action in Washington County.
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