In the age of Coronavirus and social distancing, how are we measuring the milestones that define our humanity?
My youngest daughter received the heartbreaking email this week we all knew was coming but sincerely prayed would not. Her university, like so many others around the country, cancelled its upcoming commencement exercises due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of course, the announcement does not change the accomplishment. My daughter and millions of her peers have earned their degrees. No one can take that achievement away, not even a wretched virus. But it will be a graduation without fanfare for this generation.
In fact, many milestones have been stripped of commemoration in the age of Coronavirus. The ban on group gatherings caused a friend’s daughter to postpone her long-planned wedding ceremony this month. The day might have started with the words, “We are gathered here today to witness and celebrate the union of . . .” Instead, it was reduced to two signatures on a license, witnessed by a lone county clerk standing six feet away.
Another set of friends welcome their first baby in a few weeks but have ditched the much-anticipated string of baby showers. And the grandparents? They won’t be holding that newborn in their arms until he is several months old.
Even the more somber milestones are off limits these days. Quarantines frustrate our efforts to stand beside elderly or ill family members as their days grow fewer. With the fear of COVID-19, how do we properly honor loved ones who have died when we are not able to join together to say a collective farewell?
Closed for Business
This pandemic has up-ended our daily routines in so many ways. The public square is basically closed for business, making even simple acts like running to the store, dining out with friends, or watching a movie on the big screen difficult or near impossible. Still, the disruption is felt most acutely in the moments we are meant to be together, celebrating and remembering. Measuring the milestones is hard right now because these moments are best lived in community.
The true calamity of COVID-19 is its crushing blow to community. Just a few weeks ago, before Coronavirus dominated the 24/7 news cycle, social scientists were sounding the alarm about a different scourge — an epidemic of loneliness. According to a report released in January by health insurer Cigna, 61% of Americans report being lonely. Too few meaningful social interactions and not enough social support lead to poor physical and mental health for nearly two-thirds of the American public. Enter social distancing. The loneliness quotient is bound to rise with a prolonged stay-at-home posture.
Which brings us back to milestones — and my daughter’s graduation. To be sure, we cannot be reckless with public health; there needs to be a balance between sound public policy and individual liberties. Still, we need to continue to find healthy and meaningful ways to measure the milestones.
Creativity in Adversity
Instead of traditional commencement exercises, the university asked my daughter and her cohorts to consider three alternatives. The first is a video-recorded ceremony, complete with speaker and acknowledgement of awards but minus the students, guests and regalia. The second is a full commencement ceremony with all the trappings, to be held at some undetermined date in the future. The third is outright cancellation.
Option three is stark. It belies the very nature of our culture, which is rooted in relationship and community. And though we may need to put on hold the ceremonies that mark life’s passages — the birthdays, weddings, graduations, quinceañaras, bar mitzvahs, baptisms, funerals — we cannot suspend the milestones themselves. They will occur, virus or no virus.
Postponement of our most cherished life events preserves a sense of hope for the future, a belief we will endure and find our way back to normal —albeit an altered normal. But even in the waiting, we need to honor the milestones, not simply set them aside. That will take an abundance of creativity. But creativity in adversity is one of the finer human traits.
Already, we have seen stories of communities coming together in creative ways: drive-by birthday parties, virtual coffee dates, online worship services, rooftop fitness classes. Until we are able to safely congregate once again, creative observance of the milestones will unite us and bind us together, even in our separation.