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Joining: In a Time of Distancing

Monday, 14 December 2020  | Charles Ringma

We are all only too aware that the current Covid pandemic has brought about many changes, great distress and real suffering. These have been more significant in countries where the pandemic has had a greater impact. Thus, we do need to be careful that we don’t over-generalise.

But we are not only aware, but also deeply disturbed, by the conflicting responses to the pandemic that we have seen in various countries. Tensions have been rife. This has been most clearly seen in the push on the part of the authorities for lock-down, social distancing and Covid testing, contrasted with the protests of people who insist that they should be free to live and do as they like and not have their ‘freedoms’ restricted.

And somewhere in all of this, there lurks a tension that has to do with cooperation on a massive scale on the one hand and, on the other, the important role that social distancing is meant to play in keeping us as safe as possible. Thus, we have here a dialectic: that of joining and distancing or joining and separating.

One way of putting this is to say that we are to join together in the art of separating. However, this may be nicely said, but is fraught with all sorts of problems. The most obvious is that, in participating in the ‘dance’ of joining and distancing, we undermine one or the other of these dimensions.

The most painful is that the more we practice social distancing the more we undermine joining and the bonds of social relationships that are so important to human well-being and flourishing.

We are all deeply touched by the elderly in aged-care facilities who died without family members being there to comfort them; weddings and funerals with many not being able to attend; and religious services where faith communities can longer gather in the usual way.

What all of this means is that there is pain and loss in living this tension.

But this current crisis can also be used to reflect on past realities and future possibilities with regard to the tension of joining and separating. Let’s explore this and see what may surface.

The first is that our pre-Covid joining was fraught with some problems. The main problem, I would argue, was that our joining was marked with the fault-line of a rampant individualism that left our sense of joining in an acute state of precarity. We joined in marriages, joined companies, joined clubs, joined political parties and religious groups, only to abandon them again when problems arose or at a mere whim or fancy. ‘Keep our options open’ was more the mantra, rather than the challenge of making deep commitments.

The second and related issue in our pre-Covid world has been that our joining has led to exclusivity. ‘I belong to this group and therefore have nothing to do with that group!’ We have seen this most clearly in matters of race, religion, politics and gender.

Just in the light of these two factors alone - and I not seeking to be exhaustive here - we may conclude that our sense of joining has been rather marred and fractured. To put it in other words, many of our societies have been both wonderfully diverse, but also deeply divided and fragmented. A sense of joining that has led to both solidarity and a commitment to the common good, or to the ‘common-weal’, has been sadly lacking.

And to see this from the other side – that of social separation – we see people living with both the pain and anger of not-belonging, victimisation and social exclusion.

All of this is not a wonderful picture, let alone a mosaic!

But what of the future? Can the present realities of joining and distancing anticipate a new way of being in a post-Covid world? Many would say not. We are most likely, they would claim, to revert to the old realities. They may well be right.

But let us dream. Is it possible that, in learning in our present circumstances to cooperate in social distancing, we can learn to cooperate in other areas of social life that are pressing in on us? Can we join together in the challenges of responding to climate change? Can we join together in responding better to poverty and social fragmentation? Can the realities of distancing and fragmentation lead to new ways of mutual listening, relationship-building, joining and cooperation.

I believe it is possible! What would you suggest? How do you see future possibilities?

Charles Ringma has taught in universities, seminaries and colleges in Asia, Australia and Canada. He is Emeritus Professor Regent College, Vancouver, Canada. His recent publications are Hear the Ancient WisdomSabbath Time and Chase Two Horses.

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