In a remarkably short space of time other people have become dangerous. Or, to be more precise, they have become bearers of danger and a risk to health. This remarkable transformation runs counter to so much that we have been used to doing, almost without thought. It is telling that politician after politician has spoken stern advice only to breach it themselves within moments. Those who have cautioned against handshaking, and then turned from the podium to stretch out a hand to a colleague. The people who warn against the habit of touching our faces and then lick a finger to turn a page. This week, a Bishop who put his clergy under caution of discipline if they led public prayers and then was seen the next day in the House of Lords offering prayers in full regalia.
The Christian faith is full of touch. The care of the Good Samaritan; the father’s embrace of the prodigal son; the women whose haemorrhage would not cease. Time and again the images offered in scripture reference reaching out; breaking taboos and welcoming the excluded. Clergy engaged in pastoral care often encourage people not to avoid the bereaved. We have spoken often about the damage that can lie in the simple act of crossing the road in order to avoid a difficult conversation.
During my daily walk I am now scrupulous in avoiding others. As I see people approach there is a careful choreography of avoidance. Occasionally we exchange a shared smile as our actions simultaneously mirror each other and we risk close proximity. Perhaps people are speaking a little more, but there are some who appear to feel that even a ‘hello’ might be infectious.
At this stage it is difficult to know whether the behaviours we are being compelled to adopt will leave a lasting legacy. For good reason we are learning to distance ourselves from others: even the grieving cannot be offered the consolation of a hug. Already the distress of this enforced separation is taking its toll on people as we retreat into our own space and the safety of our personal two metre exclusion zone. While many will still enjoy the company of people living in the same household, this cannot be true for all. In 2017 it was estimated that 15% of adults in the UK were living alone.
The longer-term question is how the accumulation of micro-acts of physical distancing will change us. Will our sense of self and our relationship with others return to how they were before – or will we be left with a lingering sense of separation? Understandably our efforts at the moment are focused on the preservation of life, the continuity of vital supplies and the care of the most vulnerable. Yet we ought to be aware that such dramatic shifts in expectations and daily conduct will almost certainly leave marks on the shape of our spirituality, our relationships and our sense of connection. At the end of this crisis I suspect that the impact of inequality will be made starkly visible as the suffering of the poor, elderly and disabled, will be disproportionate to the whole.
As we enter the final days of Lent there are plenty of images offered of isolation and its pain. From the agony in the garden to the abandonment of the cross, from being disowned to being made a public spectacle, distress and suffering are linked to the experience of distancing. Perhaps our hope at this time, drawing on our spiritual resources, is to point to a resurrection in which life will in time be both renewed and altered. That the pain of solitude can be transformed into a far richer understanding of our shared humanity, and that the idol of individualism can at last be dismantled in our public life for the sake of the common good.