Is this the new normal, social interaction with faces hidden?

As we leave the cashier at the grocery store, Heather leans over to me and says quietly, “You have to smile with your eyes now.”

I wonder if I know how to smile with my eyes. What does human communication look like when the bottom half of the face is covered? How will we communicate when we are all hide sheltered behind a mask?

I might walk by you in the aisle and not even recognize you, though we have known each other for years. What is going to be the impact of this “new normal”?

How much social distancing can we maintain until it begins to become detrimental to our well-being?

On my run his morning I encounter a little girl walking with her father. The father moves off the path onto the grass. The girl, perhaps eight-years-old, moves aside and then, as I came closer, backs away from me up the grassy slope. I feel sad as it occurs to me that she looks afraid. I wave and thank her. She returns my wave and gives me a shy smile.

I wonder what kind of post-COVID world children are going to inhabit when they grow up learning to view every stranger as a potential source of disease. How will they learn to trust? Will they ever be free to really relax in the presence of others?

I remember relaxed warm evening outdoor summer market days, slowly wandering hand in hand with our grandchildren. We jostle forward to view the merchants’ wares at their booths. We buy finger food and eat as we stroll along with the flow of human traffic. Will our grandchildren never again experience the closeness of other people in a relaxed gentle gathering larger than their slightly extended family?

I understand that it is important to keep our distance. I understand that masks can be an essential barrier to transmission. I understand that the virus can spread like wildfire in large gatherings. I understand we must take responsibility for protecting the health of others as best we can.

But I wonder what we may be losing in these days of COVID distancing? Will we ever again greet a new acquaintance with a warm handshake? Will we ever again gather comfortably in groups larger than a hundred? Will we travel to distant lands without heightened anxiety at the possibility of contracting disease? Will shopping from now on be a tense navigation around potential sources of infection?

COVID is a dangerous disease. It has taken an immense toll in the world. An estimated 300,000 people have died in the world in the first four months of 2020.  But loneliness and social isolation are also dangerous diseases. According to the World Health Organization, every year 800,000 people die from suicide. This is the price of the often-hidden pandemic of pain that has afflicted thousands of people long before COVID came on the scene.

If learning to smile with my eyes is the skill I need to develop to help alleviate some of the suffering that touches so many lives, I will try to learn this new way of touching strangers at a distance from behind my mask. I will give a friendly wave to the little girl who moves aside to let me pass. I will thank the delivery person who drops a parcel at the bottom of my front steps.

COVID is not going to go away. The need for new physical disciplines will not end. So, alongside our caution, we need to have courage to find new ways to reach out and touch one another, to cross barriers and open to the possibility of genuine human connection.