2020 was a strange year to be a neigbour. Just before the pandemic, I'd started inviting neighbours and connections over for dinner and was encouraged by the very obvious magic of getting people around a table (covered in food). When the pandemic shut down what passed for everyday life in March, some opportunities evaporated and others appeared. Neighbours doing voluntary quarantine needed groceries and, once the weather warmed, I needed gardening tips.
One thing I've noticed is that relationships don't take root in the virtual realms of video calls and social media. These tools are useful means of maintaining existing connections, but they do not establish them – if they do, they do so in bad soil with weak roots.
The one instance of meeting someone new during a hard COVID lockdown happened within the context of another strong relationship. A good friend told me I would like her good friend; we arranged a FaceTime chat and enjoyed the conversation. Then, as soon as possible, we met for backyard drinks and found out we enjoy each other's company as much as the other's Facebook posts, maybe more! My point here is that a garden tool is not the garden. The connection between myself and my friend's friend took on weight as we moved toward each other, from the circling dance of online engagement to the flat simulation of video, and finally to embodied (dare I say) communion.
Yet, I started by saying it's been a strange year to be a neighbour. As it happens, my new friend was a near neighbour earlier this year and now is not. I haven't been able to invite my neighbours and friends over through rolling lockdowns, but I have cooked for them more and out of pure enjoyment. In fact, I may have made the boldest moves to get to know a new neighbour during the pandemic. Getting to know this neighbour could only happen physically, outdoors and distance as we were. And I think everyone involved was happier for it.
Why? Because living in plague times reminds us of what is ours to lose. A pandemic that keeps us apart has served to remind many how desperately we want to be together. Let's not waste that revelation in 2021.
The Opposite of Loneliness
I'm a registered introvert, but I have an abiding need to share thoughts and experiences. When I see a fat squirrel in Montreal's parks in November, I want to tell someone. When I draw a connection between the old book I'm reading and something in the news, I want to grab someone and say, "aha, look!"
Introverted as I am, the urge to connect with people is powerful. It's called being human. Yet, when I get this urge, my thoughts can quickly turn to Twitter, a distinctly inhuman way to satisfy an essential human need. The drive to dehumanize—both ourselves and others—is frustratingly human as well. We think we're getting what we want when we give ourselves over to the spectacle of very-online life. The connection we're promised is there, but it isn't what a human expects; it isn't what a body needs. Online connection is good for something, but not for whole human people.
In his book Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens, Eric O. Jacobsen tells the story of Marina Keegan, a young Yale graduate who asked, "what's the opposite of loneliness?"
It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats. (Marina Keegan, 2012 Yale Daily News)
If there’s an opposing force to loneliness it’s probably best summed up in belonging. The word evokes a settled sense of mutual support and comfort. To belong somewhere (and it’s usually a place) is nothing less than to know and be known, but not necessarily in the most intimate ways.
Jacobsen suggests that this "not quite love" and "not quite community" sense of togetherness is lacking today because civic life has atrophied. In Jacobsen’s analysis, there are levels of belonging, and while many might feel satisfied with the state of their intimate and personal relationships—our closest family and friends—fewer and fewer people feel a strong sense of social and public belonging.
Social belonging is the kind we experience "with people with whom we recognize but may not know very well." The sense of comfort we get from a group of familiar faces at church or quick conversations around the photocopier at work are examples of social belonging. Public belonging, in comparison, is made up of even looser ties. It's the belonging we experience with "those whom we may not know personally but with whom we are connected through some external commonality. This is the connection between fans of the same sports team, Comic-Con attendees, and members of the same neighbourhood.
These relationships may not seem important on the surface but they’re important in aggregate. It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees, but what happens when the forest is gone? One consequence is that our intimate relationships bear the weight that would be better dispersed by layers of belonging.
David Roberts, writing about the growing problem of social isolation in 2015, states what should be obvious:
We should recognize that by shrinking our network of strong social ties to our immediate families, we lose something important to our health and social identities, with the predictable result that we are ridden with anxiety and loneliness. We are meant to have tribes, to be among people who know us and care about us.
To be among people, but not just those with whom we share households. Even when intimate and personal relationships are healthy and able to bear considerable weight, they don’t provide the full-bodied belonging that social and public relationships can contribute to. This reminds me of a conversation I had with my brother recently. We complained about how hard it was to make plans, with each other but also with others. At least part of the problem is a lack of close relationships, which men have been shedding for years, but it isn’t all about a lack of options. We agreed that busyness, obligations, and the siren song of a catatonic evening in front of the TV were factors. Yet, as we puzzled through our frustration, an obvious culprit emerged: proximity. This brings us back to the weird perils and promises of digital connection.
A group chat can help maintain social bonds in a pandemic, but it does a poor job of deepening relationships. I get the distinct feeling that most of what goes on in digital interaction is a sort of rehearsal of our existing relationships. I’ve met lots of people online since my days of writing angsty status messages in MSN Messenger and I’m thankful for those opportunities to connect. A Twitter friend is just a new kind of pen-pal, though. If you like someone’s tweets but can’t stand to be in the same room as them, are you “friends”?
But what about the problem of making plans and actually following through with live, in-person friends? Over the next several issues I’ll do my best to navigate some thorny questions of belonging:
Each of these three questions will address a distinct aspect of belonging as it related to the practice of neighbouring and the structure of our neighbourhoods. Consider it a primer for stitching local and fruitful bonds in a post-pandemic world.
Next in this Series
The Tech Angle
Tristan Harris, a former Google designer and co-founder of the Centre for Humane Technology, has been rightly criticized for pushing technological solutionism. Many of the problems we face as users of digital technology are fundamental to the technologies themselves, not their implementation. Not everything can be fixed by fiddling with the settings. Still, I found this interview both helpful and hopeful.
We can't put technological developments back in the box. Instead, we have to think seriously about how our technologies deform us, and how we can build alternatives that aren't just bigger, faster, and more profitable.
Here's a Spotify link to the podcast.
Related: Eli Pariser, the interviewee in the podcast, also wrote an op-ed in Wired: To Mend a Broken Internet, Create Online Parks.
More on alternatives to Big Social Media: Research from Columbia University confirms the logic of locality; it's not easy, but it works. The discussion about the model demonstrated by Front Porch Forum fills me with something like optimism. Local Logic: It's Not Always a Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood.
Hi, I'm Matt – Thanks for reading Good Words! I run this newsletter on a patronage model, which means the best stuff goes out for free to everyone. If you'd like to support my work and get some perks, you can subscribe here. Not ready to commit? You can also buy me a beer.