The title of this essay comes from a heartbreaking three-minute film made by a teenage girl, Liv McNeil. Simply yet precisely crafted, it documents the withering of a teenager’s life in the time of Covid lockdown. The camera lingers over photographs of her having fun with her friends. Then onto her computer screen, her assignments, scrolling, scrolling… her life now held in a box. And then scores of still shots of herself sitting on her bed, day after day, trying to stay upbeat as her patience gradually gives way to numbness.
I shared the video with a close friend who related a similar story about her own teenage daughter, whom I’ll call Sarah. A vivacious, spirited, outgoing girl, who was often outdoors and rarely looked at screens, she “wilted like a flower cut off at the roots,” becoming sad and listless. Fortunately, my friend, who is relatively wealthy, found Sarah an opportunity to work with horses and life came back to her.
I am happy for Sarah, but what of all the less lucky ones spending endless hours in their bedrooms, motionless, staring at the screen, socializing in but two dimensions, starving for the society of their friends? No more sleepovers, no more choir, no more theater, no more sports, no more parties, no more outings, no more dances, no more summer camp, no more band practice…
Before I go on, let me pause to give voice to what many readers must be thinking: “Quit your over-privileged complaining! What is the sacrifice of play and sociality compared to saving lives?”
I agree that protecting people’s health is important, yet its value must stand alongside other values. To see that it is a relative and not an absolute value, consider a hypothetical extreme in which we could save one life by locking down all society for a year. I don’t think many people would agree to that. On the other extreme, imagine we were faced with a plague with a 90% mortality rate. In that case, few would resist the most stringent lockdown measures. Covid-19 is obviously somewhere in between.
In modern society, saving lives is a paramount value. (Actually the term is a misnomer – there is no such thing as saving a life, since we are mortal and will all one day die. Therefore let us use a more accurate phrase: postponing deaths.) Much of public discourse, from healthcare to foreign policy, revolves around safety, security, and risk. Covid-19 policy also centers on how to prevent as many deaths as possible and how to keep people safe. Values such as the immeasurable benefits of children’s play, of singing or dancing together, of physical touch and human togetherness are not part of the calculations. Why?
One reason is simply that these immeasurables elude calculation, and therefore fit poorly into a policy-making process that prides itself of being scientific; i.e., quantitative, based on the numbers. But I think there is a deeper reason, rooted in modern civilization’s conception of who we are and why we are here. What is the purpose of life? What is it, even, to be alive?
I have written in an earlier essay about the mania for safety, the denial of death, the glorification of youth, and the all-encompassing program of control that has engulfed our society. Here I will state a simple truth: There is more to living than merely staying alive. We are here to live life, not just survive life. That would be obvious if the certainty of death were integrated into our psychology, but in modern society, sadly, it is not. We hide death away. We live in a pretense of permanence. Seeking the impossible – the infinite postponement of death – we fail to fully live life.
We are not the discrete, separate individuals that modernity narrates to us. We are interconnected. We are inter-existent. We are relationship. To live fully means to relate fully. Covid-19 is a further step in a long trend of disconnection from community, from nature, and from place. With each step of disconnection, although we may survive as separate selves, we become less and less alive. The young and the old are especially sensitive to this disconnection. We see them shrivel like fruit in a drought. As a psychiatrist friend recently wrote to me, “Among the elderly, the fallout has been truly disastrous. Being quarantined in the room and isolated from family is causing massive amounts of invisible suffering and decline, as well as deaths. I can't tell you how many anguished family members have told me that it's not Covid that is killing their loved one -- it's the restrictions.”
I am not advocating that sociality become a new absolutism to replace death postponement as the overriding determinant of public policy. I just want it to be prominent in the conversation. I want to enshrine it as a sacred value. A full social life is not some privileged add-on to the meeting of measurable physical needs, it is a basic human right and a basic human necessity. This is not just a “white” problem either; if anything, isolation afflicts the poor even more than the affluent, since the poor have less access to the technological substitutes – pallid though they are – for in-person community. Furthermore, what right have we to say that the degree of suffering is less from loneliness than it is from hunger or disease? When it drives people to stop eating, to loll listlessly day after day, even to attempt suicide, it is profound suffering indeed.
The final irony is that in the end, a policy based on minimizing deaths won’t even achieve that. Life withers in isolation. This is true on a biological level, as we require ongoing intercourse with the world of microbes and, yes, viruses, to maintain bodily equilibrium. It is true as well on the social level: one prominent meta-analytic review concluded that social isolation, loneliness, and living alone, cause an average of 29%, 26%, and 32% increased likelihood of mortality, respectively. That’s roughly the same risk level as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or habitual excessive drinking. But I have not seen our politicians or medical authorities including such considerations in their epidemiologically informed policy decisions.
But that isn’t what I am protesting here. Even if this ironic failure weren’t true, even if we could postpone death forever by isolating each person in a bubble, it still wouldn’t be worth it. I know that when I watch “Numb.” I know that when I see my own children doing their best to cope in a socially impoverished landscape, when my older sons speak of loneliness, apathy, and depression; when my 15-year-old sees his friends through screens or, very occasionally, through masks and six feet apart; when my youngest begs constantly for a “play date.” What are we doing to our children? Will no one stand up for the value of a game of tag? A gaggle of kids piling all over each other? I can’t put a number on the value of these compared to postponing X number of deaths. I just know that they are far more important than society has made them.
Some might say, this is only temporary, life will go back to normal as soon as we have a vaccine. Well, even ardent vaccine proponents like Bill Gates are saying that these vaccines will offer only temporary protection. Besides, there may be new mutations, new influenza pandemics, or some other disease. As long as we hold death postponement as our highest priority, there will always be reasons to keep the children locked down. We are today setting a precedent and establishing what is normal and acceptable.
While most people don’t have access to a horse farm internship, the basic principle is widely practicable. It is the principle of reconnection. The migration of childhood onto screens and the indoors did not start with Covid, nor did the rise of childhood depression, anxiety, and other disorders. In particular, the disabled and neurodiverse have often lived with the degree of isolation children (and the rest of us) are experiencing en masse. Now we have a wake-up call to reverse this trend both in our parenting and in our public policy – to revalue play, outdoors, connection to place, interaction with nature, and community gathering.
Many people have died or suffered permanent impairment from Covid-19. I offer my sincere condolences to them and their families. And I would like also to offer my condolences to the young people for the lost months of play, friendship, and gathering. It is not supposed to be this way, certainly not for long. These are not conditions suitable for your thriving; if you feel confined, listless, or depressed, it is not your fault. My heart goes out to you. But our sympathies are not enough. It is up to us adults to see the suffering that Liv McNeil has helped make visible, bring it into the public conversation, and do something about it. There is more to parenting than keeping our children safe.