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Is COVID the cure for saving social intercourse?

It was the 1980s. I was a teenager, and the spread of a different contagion threatened to overturn our way of life: genital herpes.

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Fear of this new STD led social commentators to ponder whether a new age of chivalry awaited just over the horizon. Perhaps, as in days of old, a suitor wouldn’t need heavy petting to make his neurons tingle with excitement, but merely the brush of a woman’s hair across his fingertips while helping her on with her coat.

They were wrong, of course. The sexual revolution was not going to be suppressed by an errant virus as long as human hormones led the charge. And today as well, predictions that social distancing is here to stay will likely prove overblown.

Indeed, despite the mandate to shelter-in-place imposed by COVID-19, an astonishing number of people seem indifferent to the potentially life-saving measures of masks and physical separation. Human beings are social creatures, and many of us willingly risk our lives rather than relinquish our convivial connections.

But what if the benefits of distance extend beyond mere physical health?

DON’T TOUCH MY STUFF

In 1995, newly crowned Miss America Heather Whitestone made headlines when she disclosed the “Hands Off” policy she pursued during the first six months of her courtship with John McCallum, whom she married the following year. “I wanted to get to know his heart first,” she said.

Although we don’t generally look to beauty queens for insights into human nature, Miss Whitestone anticipated the findings that appeared in a 2001 study by the Institute for American Values titled Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right: College Women on Mating and Dating Today.

The 18-month study, led by Norval Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt, examined the attitudes and values of college women regarding sexuality, dating, courtship, and marriage. Among their many observations, the researchers observed a level of confusion and frustration among college women caused, or at least compounded, by the intentionally ambiguous expression hooking up.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

After a hook-up, 62 percent of women claimed to feel desirable and 52 percent adventuresome. At the same time, a greater percentage (with considerable overlap) described far more negative feelings: 64 percent said they felt awkward, 57 percent confused, 44 percent disappointed, 27 percent empty, and 23 percent exploited.

In some circles, these results came as no surprise. In fact, they reflect an understanding of the human psyche that predates modern psychology by more than 3000 years.

Needless to say, any sexual contact feels good in the moment. But casual sex cannot compare to the transcendent experience physical union provides as the consummation of intense emotional intimacy. Then there’s an even more inconvenient truth: sex provides a shoddy foundation for an enduring committed relationship.

Intimacy, once made cheap, does not easily recover its former value.

Love is not, as centuries of romantic literature would have us believe, a spontaneous phenomenon that explodes unreasoningly into existence, like the big bang; neither is it something into which one falls, like the mud. Feelings of love blossom naturally as two people deepen their commitment to one another over time and build a life together in pursuit of common goals. Lust or infatuation may strike in an instant, but “love at first sight” results only from myopia of the mind’s eye.

THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER

Nevertheless, we ask again and again, “What is this thing called love?” It’s hardly surprising that we find the answer so elusive, given that a generation ago “I love you” was already our culture’s most overused expression. I love you, I love my car, I love ice cream, I love my dog and, yes, I’d love to come up for a nightcap. Then we wake up in the morning wondering why we are out of touch with our feelings and why our relationships founder – if they ever get underway at all.

Not that it’s all bad news, of course. Therapists are doing well. So are divorce lawyers. And authors of self-help books have built a cottage industry around our collective dysfunction.

Why are we so reluctant to give all this up? Isn’t it time we reclaimed the ideal of love, with all the nobility it affords us and all the emotional benefits it provides?

Shouldn’t we want to know another’s heart? Discovering how to relate, how to communicate, how to show attention and affection without dependence on physical stimulation kindles the fire of true love and keeps the glowing embers of affection burning for a lifetime.

In the Orthodox Jewish community, the policy of “Hands Off” applies not only during courtship but even after marriage. For two weeks a month, husbands and wives observe a forced separation dictated by a woman’s biological cycle. By compelling husbands and wives to resume the distancing they practiced before marriage, this system prevents physical intimacy from overshadowing spiritual intimacy and continually reignites freshness and passion with a monthly honeymoon.

It’s no accident that religious Jews rank highest of any group on the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index for happiness.

A little distance goes a long way to keep us close. And that applies to friends as well as spouses.

RECLAIMING CLOSENESS FROM AFAR

The age of the internet has been a mixed blessing. We connect with a dizzying variety of people from every corner of the globe. But as the number of our virtual connections has grown, the quality of our physical relationships has suffered.

The internet has made our interactions two-dimensional even when we are in 3-D. We don’t really know our friends. We’ve become satisfied with shallow interactions. And we’ve been too distracted to acknowledge our own dissatisfaction or identify its source. Our culture of perfunctory hugs and kisses has created an illusion of closeness that masks our psychological and emotional isolation.

Perhaps this is the silver lining hidden within the cloud of quarantine.

Now that virtual relationships are all we have, we can no longer pretend that physical proximity is enough to satisfy our souls’ longing for connection. Reflexively, we have begun searching for deeper interactions through our screens, making time for longer, more substantive conversations, and seeking out a sense of genuine community online to ease the loneliness of seclusion through meaningful exchange.

Ironically, virtual connection has provided the remedy for the virtual contagion it ignited. The pox upon our house may be the savior of our souls.

Or it may not.

It all depends on whether we learn the lessons of distancing and remember them after life returns to normal. Human connection is the true source of happiness. Family and community, friends and neighbors, colleagues, and coworkers – these provide the anchors that save us from drifting into lonely isolation, no matter how many physical bodies or virtual “friends” may be close at hand.

Hold on to those close to you with thoughts and words. Reach into their hearts and let them reach into yours. When you do, a thousand miles distance will seem like nothing, and the longing for connection will fade away before the rewards of camaraderie, fellowship, and love.

Whom will you connect with today?

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