On March 15th, political and cultural commentator David Brooks — who also writes for The New York Times — appeared on Meet the Press, NBC’s weekly Sunday morning public affairs program. As with every program right now, the show’s main topic of dialogue was the current coronavirus crisis.
During the course of the program, what most grabbed our attention was a segment in which Brooks talked about his research on different pandemics over the centuries. He found that in some crises, people magnanimously come together and support one another well. But in pandemics, he said, they fall apart. He indicated that over the last 1,000 years during crises of this sort, “… neighbors withdraw from neighbors. You get widened class divisions. Out of fear you get a spirit of callousness.”
Brooks gave the example of the 1918 influenza pandemic. Beginning in 1918 and ending in 1920, 500 million people — about a quarter of the world’s population — were affected. 50 million died. In America, he reported, 675,000 people were lost to the flu, and nobody wanted to talk about it afterwards.
And that’s because they were ashamed of how they behaved. And so we need to take some moral steps to make ourselves decent neighbors to each other as we go through this thing. Like, I think people should get on Nextdoor — this sort of Facebook for neighbors — so at least you know what’s going on right around you, which is super important. And so this is going to be not only a health crisis and a financial crisis. It’s how we treat each other (that) is going to deteriorate and we’re not going to like who we’re about to become.
Not liking who we’re about to become. A sobering thought. A troubling predicament.
Brooks went on to say,
Yeah, well, I do think loneliness and isolation are core problems underlying a lot of our other problems. And now social distancing has become a virtue. And so this is just going to make that problem of loneliness, detachment, alienation even worse. And so it’s up to us to somehow, neighbor by neighbor — we can’t go knock on the doors of our neighbors right now. But somehow, we have to make contact. If we all had the emails of our neighbors, we could at least have some sort of communication. Old people die when they’re not checked up on in a crisis. We’ve learned that crisis after crisis.
David Brooks is right. People die when they’re lonely and isolated and feeling distant. We die when we feel as if others don’t care. We die when we spend incredible amounts of time alone. We die of broken hearts, wounded spirits, bleeding souls.
We continue to say it: A growing reservoir of scientific evidence highlights how loneliness and emotional dis-ease kills.
According to Dr. Vivel Murthy, former surgeon General of the United States,
When you look at the data, what’s really interesting is loneliness has been found to be associated with a reduction of lifespan. The reduction in lifespan [for loneliness] is similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and it’s greater than the impact on life span of obesity. So if you think about how much we put into curbing tobacco use and obesity, compared to how much effort and resources we put into addressing loneliness, there’s no comparison. Look even deeper, and you’ll find loneliness is associated with a greater risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety and dementia.
We all have a special obligation during this time of crisis to remember both the physical as well as the mental, spiritual, and emotional cost it is creating.
So, reach out call, write, text — connect with those you know who might be lonely and isolated and feeling distant. Show them you care. Tell them the matter. Express to them your love.
Living with regrets is something none of us want. Let’s help to make this pandemic much different from those that have come before.