Human connection in times of crisis

Victoria Helmer, Columnist

Being alive today means living through simultaneous crises. Some call life under our global health crisis “the new normal,” but there’s nothing new about itSome officials want us to get back to normal, but as my fellow columnist Sile Surman has eloquently argued, this rhetoric of “going back” is dangerous: “Normalcy never truly existed… ‘Normal’ stability entailed the existence of healthcare inaccessibility, accelerating climate change and rising income inequality. This country already embodied poverty, mass incarceration and police brutality.” 

Forecasts for the future are similarly bleak. In a TED Talk titled “Coronavirus Is Our Future,” the speaker states, “This is not the last major outbreak we’re going to see…That’s not a maybe; that’s a given. And it’s a result of the way that we, as human beings, are interacting with the planet.” Climate scientist Philip B. Duffy also has a sobering view on the uncertainty of today: “People are always asking, ‘Is this the new normal?’” he said. “I always say no. It’s going to get worse.” 

Isn’t that scary? How can we cope with this?

In an apology letter to a friend, animated character Bojack Horseman of the eponymously-titled show writes, “In this terrifying world, all we have are the connections that we make,” and lacking connections can feel like having nothing. I would go so far as to say that we need them to feel good. But even then, these connections are necessarily impermanent, and their inevitable breakages come with an unbearable grief.

Isn’t that kind of a scam? Human connection is a salve that can make this whole thing feel a little less caustic, but connection always implies eventual loss. And none of us signed up for this shit, yet here we all are, living. 

Isn’t that weird? What is this? Or, more precisely, can we be okay with this? And why? Like, just in general, why? 

I am not an omniscient being, so I don’t know. I’ve tried asking Google, but the search has taught me that algorithms and documentations can only tell us so much. There are certain questions that, by nature, can never be definitively answered through data collection alone, and no one has absolutely all of the answers to existential questions. 

But despite our limitations, I do think that, in our quest for understanding everything, all we have is each other. All we have is the art and words we share, and really any intelligible communication. As Savannah Brown puts it, “Maybe, in the pursuit of making sense of ourselves, and of making sense of any of this, the most important resource we have is each other.” 

She said this pre-pandemic. One person who can help us make sense of today’s perplexity is Jia Tolentino, who writes, “Everything circles a bewildering paradox: other people are both a threat and a lifeline. Physical connection could kill us, but civic connection is the only way to survive.” 

And in the same way us humans can all be both vectors and victims of hurt, we can also be givers and receivers of healing. If mass trauma is real, so is collective healing — or perhaps collective palliation when the former isn’t accessible. This can sometimes mean everyday acts of kindness, leading to flickers of feel-good and moments of joy, or the mutual aid that Tolentino makes a pressing case for.

When our planet is dying and institutions are failing us, band-aids are better than nothing. While not wholly satisfying, they are one of our best options when resources are scarce and the source of damage is ongoing and out of reach. 

When times are dire, mutual care can also mean paying extra attention to your sphere of control — your social circle and community, for example. It can mean holding on, whether physically or virtually, to the people you love.