Every year contains its share of popular terms and catch phrases, words uttered and written so often that they become part of the national vernacular. In the build-up to President Donald Trump’s impeachment in 2019, it was “quid pro quo” – a Latin phrase that means, basically, a favor for a favor.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, everyone from the president of the United States down to local community leaders have made “social distancing” the latest household phrase, and with the very best of intentions. A highly contagious pathogen has much less chance to jump from person to person when there’s adequate physical space between them.
As such, etymologically and technically speaking, what’s needed is physical distancing, not social separation per se.
Even as we begin to turn the corner from this pandemic and plan the “reopening” of the country, I suspect we’ll continue to hear officials recommend that we very cautiously ease back into the rhythms of crowded spaces. So, although it may seem somewhat a matter of semantics, let’s call it what it really is.
Three Dog Night famously sang in the ‘70s, “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do, one is the loneliest number … worse than two.” But loneliness has been a raging epidemic in America long before sideburns and shag carpet.
In surveys taken before the coronavirus struck, nearly half of Americans reported feeling lonely or isolated, with seniors experiencing the malady and malaise worst of all.
I remember a friend telling a story of trying to make a phone call one evening. He dialed what he thought was the number, waited a few seconds and was surprised to hear what sounded like an elderly woman answer the call.
“I’m sorry,” my friend replied, “I think I may have the wrong number.”
“You might have,” the old lady replied. “But I live alone and don’t have anyone to talk to. Nobody calls me anymore. Can we just chat a few minutes?”
They wound up having a lovely conversation.
But social isolation doesn’t just take a mental or emotional toll. Analysts have determined that nearly $7 billion in federal spending is attributable to the consequences of loneliness and that it also accounts for a significant increase in the risk of heart disease and stroke.
My vote would be to banish the term “social distancing” from the popular lexicon these next few weeks and instead use the term “physical distancing.”
A little-known fact behind the Three Dog Night classic song is that Harry Nilsson, its writer and composer, penned the piece after trying to call a friend and getting a busy signal. The “beep, beep, beep” tone of the sound inspired the opening notes. The lyrics followed, and the rest is history.
Unlike Harry’s unsuccessful phone call, many of us are less busy these days. Why not use some of the time to socially connect with loved ones and friends?
As the days of physical separation turn to weeks and now to a month or more, let’s redouble our efforts to yes, physically separate where necessary, but also socially engage with those within our circles of influence. Make the call. Write the note. Send the email or the text.
One may always be the loneliest number – but thanks to the power of today’s technology, it’s still possible to be one in spirit even while remaining physically apart.