The “distancing” part is obvious enough: stay at home, and if you have to venture out, maintain the six-foot buffer zone.
The “social” part is more difficult; we rack our brains for ways of overcoming our isolation, spending hours on the phone, “Zooming” familiar faces, or boosting our presence on social media to the next level.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in the 1700s that men are naturally solitary creatures, happy in their independence from others. They entered into a “social contract” only once they started grasping at personal property; it became clear that some set of rules would have to govern men’s interactions now that they were competing for the goods — the territory, fruits of the land, shelter, and women — that had once freely been used by anyone.
Rousseau probably wouldn’t be surprised to see coronavirus escapees flood the supermarket and stagger out under armfuls of T.P. After all, he believed that society was invented only to make it easier for each person to hold onto what’s his — to build himself a small kingdom and own it safely alongside other people’s kingdoms.
He’s friendly with the neighbors because their fences set off his own lawn so nicely. He’s charitable to his employees because they keep his business afloat. He donates to food kitchens because nobody wants to be threatened by the hungry homeless. Sure, he feels pity for anyone who’s suffering and is willing to help as long as it doesn’t jeopardize him.
But when it’s a question of who gets the last container of Clorox wipes in Walmart, or whose freezer will be stocked with steak in the months ahead, it’s every man for himself. “The good of society” becomes a lackluster motivator when “the good of me” is in the balance. If society was invented only to protect me, I can walk out of the contract if it’s not in my best interest.
Recently, social distancing guidelines have been thrown to the wind as rioters take to the streets to protest injustice. But many of the champions of George Floyd do themselves no small discredit by raiding their favorite stores — at others’ grave expense — while they cry for fair treatment. A social justice warrior turning in from a hard day’s protest well stocked with loot from the nearest Nike store cuts a sad figure; it’s easy to say you care a lot about Floyd, especially when you stand to gain your favorite pair of tennis shoes by shattering windows in his honor. Rioters seem to be suffering from a pandemic of tunnel vision; suddenly, Floyd is the only one who deserves justice, while the rights of local shopkeepers, police officers, and other innocent citizens who can’t exactly be looted for are conveniently forgotten. Hidden behind the most altruistic slogans, self-interest easily parades as social justice.
This is the root of revolution: the rebelling peasants of the French Revolution, the American hoarding food in the basement, and the rioter making off with loot from local businesses are fueled by the same impetus. Each decided that the status quo is intolerable and stood up for himself at the expense of others.
Seeing men as individuals rather than social creatures nicely explains their urge to hoard when they feel they’ll lack something essential. But “social distancing” hasn’t just sent people happily into their well stocked homes to wait out the storm. As carefully as we might stash toilet paper rolls away in the closet, nobody is arguing that they will make us happy. Once we’ve checked all the boxes and filled our pantries, we sit alone and become…lonely.
We want to communicate. It’s one of our deepest urges. It’s one of the most rewarding ways we can spend our time, and it’s really our only option when we’re filled to the point of bursting with how much it means to be human. Who can bear suffering, or bear the experience of beauty, without his soul overflowing into his friend’s? Life must be shared, and social distancing strains us like hoses on full blast, clogged.
We’re faced with two phenomena: hoarding and loneliness. Don’t they contradict each other?
Most people explain the phenomenon of loneliness with the obvious observation: people are social animals! Social distancing is an unnatural ripping apart of people who naturally stick together.
But the corresponding phenomenon of hoarding goods at others’ expense raises the question, was our society truly united before this began? Or were we nothing but a Rousseau-style homogenization of individuals who really cared about only ourselves? If we were nothing but a well stirred blend of oil and water, it was only natural that we’d eventually drift apart.
At root, do we deserve the great joy of friendship if we respond to a crisis by putting our own needs before our friend’s? Do we deserve a flourishing society in peacetime if the whole idea of society dissolves in a crisis?
In World War II, hoarding was seen as unpatriotic. It was a whitewashed treachery to be full while one’s countrymen starved. But hoarding is also the logical consequence of philosophies that isolate man instead of viewing him as part of a larger whole.
By contrast, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “it is natural for man, more than for any other animal, to be a social and political animal, to live in a group.” Like Aristotle, who termed man the zoon politikon or political animal, Aquinas believed that our urge to be social was deeply ingrained in us; society was a rich fabric woven of individuals who contributed, each in his own way, to the common good of the whole. For Aristotle and Aquinas, we naturally want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
The Catholic’s answer to social distancing isn’t to try gluing ourselves to our friends through FaceTime. It’s a deeper answer, simple, costly, and wholly satisfying. We belong to a Mystical Body. This means that there is no such thing as “me” versus “everyone else.” Truly, I am an individual, but as a Catholic, my individuality becomes a way to identify with others. In my own soul, I see the print of my brothers and sisters in Christ; our needs are one.
To say men are naturally social is to promise both great happiness and great sacrifice. Happiness because we can love, and love means fullness. Sacrifice because we must love, and love means the gift of self to the other, often feeling more like a self-annihilation than the self-fulfillment that it truly is.
While it’s easy to share when we have enough, it hurts to think of going without because we’ve shared. And yet this readiness to share what we don’t have much of — be it T.P., time on the phone when our nerves are already frayed, a smile when we feel depressed, or a sacrifice whose fruits we may never see — is the true remedy to social distancing.
We will cease to feel lonely only when we have emptied ourselves for our friends — when we give out of our own nothingness.
A version of this article first appeared at OurWarpath.com.