Even before the coronavirus and the advent of social distancing, I took walks almost daily. As someone who lives in about 700-square feet and works in that same space, I knew the importance of getting outside and moving to help the blood and ideas flow during the work day.
I am heartened by how many people I see walking during the day since the coronavirus forced people to grab laptops and head for the hills. I feel like there’s a new work-at-home walking club in the neighborhood that I neither had to organize nor pay a fee to join. As an extrovert who lives alone, six weeks of no social activities (outside of a few Zoom gatherings) is taking its toll on my psychic energy. Taking walks has really become one of my favorite parts of the day. “I get to be outside and see people!” said the extrovert gleefully.
But, social distancing can feel a little … antisocial.
When passing someone on the sidewalk, one person or the other chooses to move to walking in the street or a nearby yard or, in some extreme cases, move to the other side of the street to avoid contact with me. I know they are doing this to avoid accidental contact and the spread of disease; but, I still feel a slight, reflexive sting of rejection when people walk away from me. Perhaps they feel it too when roles are reversed.
Some people, like myself, try to overcompensate for this antisocial behavior by saying louder than normal, “Hello,” and “Good Morning,” to each other as we pass. I have found myself using my gaze to make meaningful eye contact at people wearing masks since I can’t see smiles or any facial expression.
Other times, people do not extend the loud, verbal social greetings and instead cast eyes downward and dart away to create the six (or more) feet of social distance. Fear, rather than friendliness, seems to have overtaken them. I know some folks might call this a city thing. (I do live in a fairly dense urban area.) But, I don’t think that is the only thing happening here. Although we may not know all our neighbors like people do in small towns, people around here, before coronavirus, were more willing to at least make eye contact.
I want to keep the work-at-home walking club habit, but I hope those who respond in a seeming fearful way find ways to let go of that fear. Our brains are wired to mistrust situations and people that are new. So this response is understandable. Perhaps integrate some intentional breathing into your walk to calm yourself down. As yogis (like me) often say, a relaxed body is a relaxed mind. We can relax into this new normal and begin to connect with people, even rely on them, in new and profound ways. We simply don’t need the fear and mistrust to take deeper root than it already has in our deeply divided world.
So, please, take a deep breath and make eye contact with strangers. Be kind and friendly to the tremendous people working at grocery stores, restaurants, home good stores, etc. Be mindful when you’re out walking in your neighborhood. Connect first with yourself — the increase in breathing, the feel of your feet against the ground or pavement, the swaying of hips and arms side to side with each step. Then, perhaps focus outward — Make eye contact, say hello, perhaps even introduce yourself to your neighbors, keeping the appropriate physical distance, of course.
I believe strongly that every crisis is an opportunity. One of the most challenging opportunities in this crisis is to overcome fear and mistrust and connect with each other. We might as well start with greeting neighbors out for a walk.