Zoom, Risk, and Fig Leaves

And just like that, in two months, we’ve all become experts at remote work, users of distance learning, connoiseurs of food delivery apps, and adherents of virtual church.

How many of these changes, you might wonder, will stick around in society long after the coronavirus has vanished? Are dine-in establishments done for? Will this be the final nail in the coffin of traditional undergraduate education? As one particularly drastic headline put it, is it the end of the handshake?

While I’m sure there will be long-lasting ramifications in national economies and global infrastructure in the wake of COVID-19, I am not sure that some of these traditional institutions of human relationships will disappear as quickly as some have predicted. If thousands of years of plagues and pandemics didn’t halt hugs and handshakes, COVID-19 won’t either. More than that, I think this pandemic has awakened in many of us a previously unknown hunger for the vitality and depth that comes from the physical presence of other people.

Here’s one example that has been bothering me to no end: Eye contact. It’s impossible in digital media. When I Zoom or Skype with a friend, I see him looking slightly away from me. He sees the same thing. His camera is in a different place than his screen, and so is mine. I could look directly at my camera to give the effect, as it were, of looking straight at him. But then I don’t actually see him at all. It’s a constant, subtle frustration in every digital conversation, like the annoyance that comes from an impish friend staring at your left ear while you’re trying to explain something important.

Very well, you might say, but I don’t like eye contact to begin with. I like the freedom to look away.

Ahha. You’ve got a point.

What makes eye contact so special? If you believe you’re a calm and collected person, just try picking out a stranger at a bus stop (someday in the distant future when bus stops are a normal part of life again) and staring into their eyes for ten full seconds. Bet you can’t. Why not?

Well, you splutter, it’s rude. It’s inappropriate. Parents are always admonishing children, “Don’t stare!” It sends the wrong message.

What message, exactly, does it send?

Walker Percy described looking into the eyes of another person as a “perilous” experience. Many of us, if we are honest, would agree. Prolonged eye contact suggests a level of intimacy we’re not comfortable with. And yet there’s nothing necessarily romantic or suggestive about looking into the eyes of another person. Don’t career development specialists tell you that good eye contact and a firm handshake are the keys to a successful interview? (By those standards, I guess not many successful interviews have happened in the last two months.) The question isn’t whether eye contact is appropriate, but what makes it good.

You can’t live with eye contact for long, but you also can’t live without it for long. What sustains a good conversation is those tiny little rhythmic glances back and forth that assure you that some kind of genuine communication with the other person is really happening. Otherwise, your conversation takes place in a vague but impenetrable cloud of anxiety. And although persistent staring might be considered an interpersonal problem, so too is an inability to make eye contact at all–just think of the mother who admonishes her child, “I said, look at me!”

Here’s the deeper issue, I think. Eye contact comes with a certain vulnerability. Perhaps, as you look into the eyes of the other person, you’ll catch a glimpse of something you didn’t want to see. Perhaps they’ll catch a glimpse of something similar in you. Perhaps they’ll make the decision (and perhaps it wouldn’t be an unreasonable one) to turn and walk away. The risk is tremendous. For those agonizing few seconds, everything is on the line.

But that level of risk also accompanies other forms of interpersonal interaction. Do you get nervous singing in public? Why? Is it just because you think you don’t have a good singing voice (whatever that is)? Or is it an aural analogue to what I’ve just said about eye contact–the agonizing realization that as you sing, you might actually be baring some vulnerable part of your soul for public scrutiny? (If you’re thinking about that scene from the movie Elf, ask yourself what makes Buddy such an innocently comedic character. Isn’t it the fact that he has absolutely no conception of interpersonal risk?)

Because risk is a regular component of our interactions other people, we develop a variety of everyday risk management strategies to help us cope with our vulnerabilities. We learn that it’s neither practical nor safe to have a heart-felt conversation with everyone we meet on the street. We learn how to force smiles. We learn the value of small talk. We learn how to be insincere. For a select few deep friends, we might be willing to open up. But for the rest, we learn how to put up invisible shields.

Or visible ones. Hiding behind technology is another proven tactic to deal with interpersonal risk. That’s the key claim that Sherry Turkle, a behavioral researcher at MIT, has been making for years in books like Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation. Apprehensive of a face-to-face encounter, we call instead and hope to leave a voicemail. Or perhaps we’re so nervous at the thought of a real-time conversation that we won’t even answer the phone. Instead we text: “Saw you called–what’s up?”

Hiding behind technology is also a fitting label for our basic response to the coronavirus. That includes doing most of our everyday meeting with other people online. But it also involves more material things like masks and gloves. These, too, are media–technologies that mediate, tools that come between you and another human being so that you can protect yourself from the unknown risk which that person poses to you. The language bears this out. The big question today is whether or not you’ve been “exposed,” and whether you may have unintentionally “exposed” other people.

One of the most disturbing psychological effects of the pandemic is the enormous social pressure that identifies you as a potential carrier of death and the people who are unfortunate enough to cross paths with you as unwitting victims. Or perhaps the stakes are turned, and you are the single victim whom everyone is out to infect. If you think that’s an overly grim picture, consider this: A paragon of activities that promote a sense of togetherness and community–choral singing–has been singled out as dangerous and irresponsible because of the risk of mass infection. Even congregational singing is currently banned in Germany. Twenty-four months is the timeline some experts are giving before choirs should be allowed to sing again.

If you’re nervous about singing in public, this is your time to rejoice. Theoretically. And if you feel somewhat uneasy (even as a non-musician) at the prospect of no communal singing for two years, then it’s time to ask why.

The question confronting individuals, businesses, and policymakers today is how the human race should deal with its vulnerabilities. And the most prevalent answer we’ve received so far is: Keep your distance. When I return to the States from Poland, I’ll have to enter a mandatory 14-day quarantine with no human contact. The cosmos, or at least the U.S. government, is sending me to my room. I can’t be trusted, and for that matter, I shouldn’t trust anyone either. So: Put on the mask. Retreat into a safe space. Connect through a screen. Wait for the delivery man to drop food outside the door. Continue breathing and await further instructions.

And yet we can’t live out that hermetically sealed vision of risk-free life. We weren’t made to. We were made for risky activities like eye contact, like walking down the street, like singing together. We were made for real fellowship in real space and real time with other real human beings. I have never thought of myself as a particularly physically affectionate person, but I know that I will remember the first hug I give or receive after this pandemic for many years to come. And there will come a time to justify those activities–not merely when the risk of contagion has been reduced to 0%, or even 5%, but when those activities themselves are counted as worth the risk.

The point isn’t a critique of public policies that have been made so far, or even of the variety of healthy and unhealthy individual responses that we’ve seen in the past weeks. The point is an open-ended reflection on the fundamental and inescapable existential risk that constitutes being a human in a world of other humans. (“Hell is other people,” as the famous quote by Jean-Paul Sartre goes.) As I’ve suggested before, coronavirus has merely pointed a spotlight at a more basic characteristic of the human condition. When the coronavirus passes, you might still be not only infected but even killed by the next person who passes you on the sidewalk. You’ve heard about murder hornets–do you ever worry that you might meet a murder person? Follow that train of thought far enough, and you’ll never leave your home again.

You see, hiding behind technology is actually quite an ancient reflex. It dates back to Adam and Eve. They called their technology fig leaves.

Fig leaves are both smart and necessary. We ought to know when to hide our vulnerabilities. We have names for people who don’t. But fig leaves are not sufficient. If we tried to expunge every trace of our vulnerability, we would simply disappear. So we need more than a turtle-like impulse that triggers a hasty retreat into our shells. We also need the distinctly personal impulse that allows us both to comprehend the risk and to take it. We need the power to lock eyes with another person, long enough to catch a glimpse of that ugly specter we dreaded seeing, and to make a conscious decision not to look away.

Rut Etheridge’s recent book God Breathed includes a particularly excellent chapter on relationships, which cuts to the heart of this discussion. Carried to its fullest extent, a pattern of constructing barriers and cocoons leads to extreme loneliness and perhaps even suicide. We sacrifice being human for the sake of being perfectly safe. We win the battle while losing the war.

Listen to those deep longings that stir inside you during this time of temporary isolation. Hear the beautiful reality to which they point: We were made for body-and-soul friendships with other incarnate human beings. And what sustains those friendships is not the absence of risk, but the presence of love. Loving without risk is no longer love. Loving despite risk is still inadequate. Rather, we love across risk. Risk is the terrifyingly high and sometimes Tacoma-Narrows-like suspension bridge across which love carries us for the sake of the other person.

Love protects the vulnerable, as the social distancing measures we’ve been patiently enduring were designed to do. And love also knows that staying away is ultimately neither the best nor the final answer.

This has been a long enough reflection, and I’m not about to switch to a theological vein and start enumerating the ways in which the Bible deals with vulnerability and relationships. Read Rut’s book for that. But it is worth noting the very first question that God asked the human race. It came after Adam and Eve had just made a choice that would set off a physical and spiritual pandemic of death throughout every subsequent generation. Knowing the decision that had just been made and the consequences it carried, the Lord still came to walk in the cool of the day in the garden, ground zero of the plague. And there the all-knowing Creator of the world spoke three words which are the water of life to every soul suffering in the miserable vulnerability of the human condition: “Where are you?”