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The Mast-Head: Contact Is Curative

Wed, 09/02/2020 - 20:44

Something I noticed only recently about the pandemic is that I felt significantly more animated after talking with a friend or even making a work call. Ordinary phone interactions now last just a little bit longer and more often than not include a moment of personal exchange, even if the voice on the other end of the line is from a distant bill-collection service or perhaps customer care at some big-box store.

Other people say they have noticed the same thing, and are responding to it without knowing exactly why. It’s probably obvious that this is why my high school and college-age daughters are desperately seeking social contact, and why many people have pushed the limits during the lockdown, putting themselves and others at increased risk of passing on the virus.

But as with many things, this observation did not click for me until I read something in a newspaper, in this case by Kate Murphy, a Times contributor, rounding up current science about people in isolation.

She likened social skills to “muscles that atrophy from lack of use.” Signs of this are everywhere, she said, “people over sharing on Zoom, overreacting or misconstruing one another’s behavior, longing for but then not really enjoying contact with others.” That last one hit home hard; I know exactly what she means.

A brain researcher at the University of Chicago told her that even the most introverted people were “wired to crave company.” In one study the article cited, loneliness was associated with an increase in physical illness, particularly strong in people between 16 and 44.

No longer in that age group, I still wondered if that might have been a reason I went home early from the office one day this week with a nonspecific malaise.

I have always liked being by myself. I’ve admired the sadhus of India, who renounce worldly cares to wander on a religious ascetic path. Becoming a hermit living in a proverbial cave might be a step too far for me, but I am attracted to the idea. I recently became owner of what might charitably be called a “project boat,” amid visions of overnights alone anchored in the lee of Gardiner’s Island.

But could that sniffle and sinus pressure be trying to tell me something? Maybe. I certainly forgot about them for a minute or two while talking with a friend the other night about gardening, and when exactly to harvest our fall crops. There is something to this, I think.

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