better safe than never

As I was reading this article (one of many trying to decipher the psychological impacts that living through a pandemic will have on us) a subtle sense of dissonance started growing in me. In the article, it is proposed that we might be feeling a painful sense of rejection due to the social distancing behaviours most people have adopted. For example, this could be triggered by a person walking out of their way to avoid coming close to us in the street. Quoting psychotherapist Phillippa Perry, the article reads “it provides no consolation to understand cognitively why we repel others. The sense of rejection remains.” 

My sense of dissonance slowly grew into a realisation that my felt experience of the distancing behaviours has been a different one. The way in which we’ve changed how we move through and interact within public spaces has intrigued me since the first time a lockdown was announced in the UK. I felt a powerful shift as I was walking through the eerie city with its empty streets devoid of cars and people. Sure, I felt stressed and nervous about the new illness that was sweeping through the world. However, the emergent social etiquette of avoidance and firm spatial boundaries was beginning to create a new and unusual feeling in me.

Despite the scary situation and the uncertainty of pretty much everything, I continue to feel a conflicting sense of increased safety. It seems to be a ridiculous thing to feel, yet it is here, deep in my gut. I feel safer in the streets. I feel safer in public places. I feel safer anywhere where I am surrounded by strangers. What is happening?

This new social code has created a spontaneous experiment of societal proportions. Suddenly, people are keeping their distance. I feel like I have an amazing, invisible force field around me that keeps strangers at an arms’ length. The pandemic has created a powerful interpersonal boundary that’s never been there before; at least not in my experience.

I’m trying to contrast this with my experience before. There were often groups of strangers (mostly men) that stood intimidatingly in the middle of the pavement, not moving as I would approach them. Each time forcing me to decide whether to act brave and keep walking steadily ahead, right through their forcefield of connections, or to show submission by avoiding them and changing direction swiftly. Which course of action was least likely to provoke aggression or ridicule? If I pass close to them, will they speak to me? Will they touch me? Will they block my way? There were often men shouting sleazy comments as I walked or cycled past them. In bars or clubs there were people invading my personal space without any consent or concern for my wishes or feelings. 

Pre-social distancing I felt a nagging need to sweep each street using my internal threat detection system, and choosing carefully whether to walk on a particular side of the street, or whether to walk down that particular street at all. The unceasing questions about whether a random stranger behind me is simply walking in the same direction or following me menacingly. What are their intentions? Should I speed up? Or pretend I haven’t even noticed and keep my pace steady? Which action would make me appear stronger? Which would keep me safe?

My experiences speak of an overriding sense of the outside world being ridden with strangers coming way too close, way too often. My mind filled with an overwhelming amount of constant decision making, trying to calculate moment-to-moment the impossible equation of how to predict a danger and avoid confrontation with people who could be dangerous, but maybe aren’t. The added layer of self-blame for always expecting the worst and projecting my own fears onto others. A no-win-game of risk in which proving myself wrong could cost me my safety. And underneath, feeling anxious regardless of whether the danger was real or not. A significant part of my mind being dedicated always to safety-checking and threat analysis. It was limiting. It was distracting. It was fucking exhausting. It sucked out so much joy to be found in being able to just experience the world.

I would’ve never dreamt that ‘repelling others’ would be a surprisingly tasty, nutritious morsel to be found in the soup of shittiness that befell our world. The spontaneous distance-keeping of strangers feels like a protective blanket of safety that transformed my personal experience of the public spaces we all share. The overarching threat of the pandemic has inadvertently removed a sense of interpersonal threat that was the ‘old normal’ that nostalgically lingers at the back of our current discourse. The fact that two contradictory things can be simultaneously true never fails to amaze me. I feel safer in an objectively more dangerous world. 

I do miss cuddles from friends and I do miss being physically close with the people I love. But this newfound agency in having a choice as to who comes close to me is intoxicating. Is this what being able to walk through the streets as though they belong to you feels like?

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