During the week that this issue of the Marina Times is going to be in production, I will be absent from my usual duties of examining layouts and proofing articles. I will instead be aboard a passenger ship chaperoning a group of Bay Area residents on a tour of the Great Lakes. It should be a great time, and I am only slightly worried that our featured speaker during the cruise is an expert on sunken ships.
That will make me double-check my life vest. But the trip is just one sign that some people are out and about, eager to be with other people and explore the world around them.
Not everyone is so eager.
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy recently said, “Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues . . . .”
Vivek said those words earlier this year in a surgeon general advisory about the impact of loneliness and isolation, which he said was an “epidemic.” We just got through a pandemic, and now we have an epidemic to worry about? Well, the two are related, and they both have a lot to do with our continuing difficulty getting our cities and communities back to some sort of status quo ante.
YOU SEE ME
A friend told me this week about a recent trip to the future soccer stadium in downtown San Francisco. The space, currently known as the Westfield mall, was “post-apocalyptic,” like a scene from the Walking Dead. She said all of the stores were locked, and you needed to be let in by a security guard to shop.
Another friend recently commented that a KQED member drive sounded kind of desperate. Membership numbers apparently aren’t what they used to be.
There are many reasons for the struggles of downtown San Francisco, including the fears of crime I noted last month. But one reason is that people just don’t want to go out shopping.
My sister knows this. She runs one of the largest bookstores in the Pacific Northwest. She is also an expert employee trainer, and she was telling me recently about her need to train some of her younger employees how to interact with customers, literally how to walk up to someone and ask them if they’re finding what they want, or to let them know where in the store there are additional books like the ones they’re perusing.
I think our larger society might need a version of my sister to help us weave ourselves back into social connections with each other.
I SEE YOU
Several decades ago, there was a lot of pontification about Americans’ lost social connections, exemplified by a trend of (as the book title said) Bowling Alone. Younger Americans were supposedly not doing these neighborly social activities, and this somehow was a harbinger of the “collapse” of American community. Well, later researchers argued with that thesis, pointing out that Americans’ participation in group sports, such as softball leagues, had been increasing during the time of supposed national dissociation.
Similarly, our current dysfunction does not represent a permanent change in humanity. I don’t think humanity fundamentally changes. But enough people can be seriously discombobulated by social disruptions like a pandemic or war that it can create medium-term problems, and what we’re going through has echoes of another pandemic, the 1918 Spanish Flu, which also killed millions of people around the world.
Following the 1918 flu pandemic, people became more religious, according to a paper written for the London School of Economics and Political Science: “On the one hand, religious faith can provide a coping device to deal with personal distress following a negative shock . . . . On the other hand, individuals may turn to religion as a source of social insurance . . . . [I]ntrinsic religiosity — rather than churchgoing — responds to unexpected negative events. Second, the increase in religiosity persists for up to a decade after the shock, suggesting a change in behavior rather than a temporary need for social insurance.”
Much ado has been made about recent surveys showing a decline in religious affiliation, even before the pandemic. But critics of religion have been wrong to interpret that as meaning there was some huge upswell of scientific rationalism taking center stage. People haven’t been dropping religious belief; they’ve been dropping participation in religious organizations. They’re dropping the ties that built their communities, self-image and self-worth. During and after the pandemic, what rose in popularity in its place? Arguably another religion: QAnon and other far-fetched conspiracy ideologies.
Similarly, the 1920s, coming on the heels of the big flu epidemic, also saw the rise of racial extremism, “Scopes Monkey Trial” fundamentalism, and the resurgence of the Klan.
In 2017, Dr. Murthy was in San Francisco talking about stress and social connection. “As we think about how to build a more connected society, which I believe is an essential part of building a country that has a high level of emotional well-being, we have to think about how to build more opportunities to create those mutually beneficial relationships, because that’s ultimately what’s going to help to reduce our rates of loneliness.”
Go shopping. Eat out. Return to a church or synagogue. Overtip your waiter or waitress and smile at them. We can do this.