I Still Haven’t Socially Recovered from Lockdown.
Over the past few years I’ve stopped believing in a lot of things. Some of those things are theological, some are political, some are social.
I have less faith in politics. I have less faith in governance. I have less faith in media, both mainstream and social. I have less faith in most institutions.
I also have less connections.
This problem was exacerbated by the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, and I don’t think I’ve recovered. In some ways, I feel at a complete and utter loss about how to address it.
In retrospect, I haven’t been faring well in this arena for a long time. The last few years have been difficult.
When we first moved to Chicago in the mid-2000s, we had a strong group of friends we’d see regularly. Over the course of the last several years, good local friends moved away for work opportunities, and other friends found other circles.
In 2019, a pair of personal tragedies (one a private grief, another a public falling out) radically changed both my faith and my expectations of “community.”1 The impact to my faith was unexpected and monumental—“faith shift” doesn’t even begin to describe what occurred. A possible worldview became impossible, untenable, unacceptable. A belief ending isn’t always some full-throated declaration of apostasy. Sometimes those circuits are just overloaded, and the belief stops working. That’s what happened then. The alternative biological metaphor - those nerve endings were shot. They felt nothing. And the wonderful local faith community we were part of then was still ultimately a community centered on a faith I could not muster feelings for, nor could the performance of liturgy console me. Such barriers are unseen and unspoken, but they are felt.
We all know all what happened in 2020: COVID-19 spread, and misinformation spread alongside it. The spread of the virus was not halted by the Trump administration, while the same administration aided COVID misinformation. The United States was torn further apart, and not in mere abstract ways. Families lost loved ones to the virus. Friends and neighbors had to social distance to limit spread. And the conflict over public health guidance became a culture war battlefield in which, as always, the most vulnerable (the immune compromised, the elderly, those in poverty, marginalized groups of all kinds) paid the cost.
During the height of the 2020 lockdown in the United States, we were the ones who moved. We were now closer to family, which was (and remains) a blessing. That has been a tremendous help. But during that same period, when everyone assumed everyone else was doing terribly, I completely forgot all the norms of socializing. Most people’s world had contracted to being whatever was right in front of them, and their sphere of concern was limited to those directly in their care (family, close friends, children, their work, their home, their health).
Even as the vaccines became available in late 2020 and throughout 2021, I didn’t know how to appropriately reach out to people. Through lockdown we were all terminally online because we had no other option. But discourse is no replacement for community, and what we do on today’s social media is not community formation as much as being active in “networked publics.” Internet researcher danah boyd describes them like this in their book, It’s Complicated:
“Networked publics are publics both in the spatial sense and in the sense of an imagined community. They are built on and through social media and other emer- gent technologies. As spaces, the networked publics that exist because of social media allow people to gather and connect, hang out, and joke around. Networked publics formed through technology serve much the same functions as publics like the mall or the park did for previous generations of teenagers. As social constructs, social media creates networked publics that allow people to see themselves as a part of a broader community. Just as shared TV consumption once allowed teens to see themselves as connected through mass media, social media allows contemporary teens to envision themselves as part of a collectively imagined community.” - danah boyd, It’s Complicated
In 2022, I had surgery to repair a lifelong issue in my right ear. The recovery took far more out of me than I expected, and other emotional issues came to the fore at the same time. I also simultaneously changed jobs and submitted a book manuscript. It was a hectic, harried year. My own world had once again contracted, and the thing that most expanded my world—Twitter and other forms of social media—underwent massive changes as Elon Musk’s corrosive influence spread across his newest acquisition. I fell away from the daily discourse, and all those loose ties fell away too.
The first half of 2023 has not been kind. I’ve faced significant setbacks, and an extended private health crisis is taking daily priority and will for quite some time. And this struggle for community and connection—for friendship and kindness in a difficult world—remains constant.
One thing I am less certain about is our ability to connect in digital spaces. I do think there is value in the public discourse things like social media afford us, but as I said above, discourse is no replacement for community, especially local community.
The shortcomings of social media are numerous. On algorithmically driven services, if you are not active on a given platform, your posts will not be seen. Even then, opaque changes to the algorithm can make posts harder to surface for no foreseeable reason; for instance, I have lost count of the number of videos I’ve seen on TikTok by people with 10s or 100s of thousands of followers complaining about a sudden decline in reach.
Social media is incredible at increasing general awareness about things. To return to the language of expansion and contraction—social media can make your world expansive. Simply by following people on Twitter for over a decade, I learned so much about so many things. But when your own world contracts amid crises, those connections deteriorate quickly from webs to cobwebs. At least they do for me.
As I find myself in another period of contraction, of needing to tend to things close to home, I’m reminded of this tension once again. Perhaps it’s because I do not have any extra time between work & family obligations to participate in constant cultural conversations (my newsletter & podcasts are conducted are not my full-time work) that I feel it so acutely.
I also spent much of the week on a short trip with friends, and was so grateful for that in-person time. I know that I need to do the litany of things to get plugged into groups in my town: go to the library, to the park district, just show up. It’s the confluence of other factors—the lockdown, the atrophied social skills, the pressing matters elsewhere—that have made it difficult.
I’m struggling, and I don’t know precisely how to even express it or ask for help. It’s hard to plan more than a day ahead right now. Right now what I want is not an audience (which is what social media produces) but something simpler.
I know that this entry isn’t perfectly polished. I don’t know if you relate. One peril of sharing something like this online is that it will be misconstrued. I’m sharing it all the same. Not every part of my life is a sob story. There are sources of stability and comfort and care. I don’t know that I desire a renewal of faith, but I know that I desire more connection. I still haven’t socially recovered from lockdown, and I want to.
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Here are some other pieces I’ve written.
These tragedies were not equal. The private grief required a prolonged period of mourning before becoming the form of grief that is always carried with you—a personal relic, a memory, an icon. The falling out changed the course and tenor of my public work, and led to me putting it on hiatus.