Gathering

One of the hardest aspects of the continuing sheltering/social distancing rules for millions of us is the inability to gather. As restrictions are loosened, it is still not truly safe to meet in large groups as before. Even with small groups with masks and social distancing, it is a risk. Anthropologically, we humans need institutions and groups to “finish us,” as we are not born with many instincts and have to learn many skills, unlike most animals. Children who are not socialized with others become feral, and later cannot function in normal human society. There is such a thing as antisocial personality disorder, which is just what its name suggests: people who are not able to interact with others in healthy ways to a pathological degree and who cannot respect how others feel. Not having this human ritual of gathering now, not having a regular, non-risky part of our lives, leads us to reflect on how we congregate as human beings.

We meet for joy. We meet to celebrate special occasions: births, graduations, weddings, showers, birthdays, anniversaries, milestones such as retirement, etc. There is something about the energy of multiple people together, that one plus one is greater than two, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It might just be five people around the table for a birthday, but throw in funny stories swapped, advice for difficult situations, jokes, et cetera, and it becomes something more. We also meet for funerals, in order to pay respects to the dead and to commemorate their lives; sometimes, it becomes a reunion to see people we may not have seen for decades.

We eat together. One of my favorite things in the world to do is to go out to dinner with a sizable group of people, or to hold dinner parties. Passing dishes around the table–“Oh, I would love some more of that rice!” “Ooh thanks, but I’m not fond of X!” or “May I taste a little of your dessert?–and sharing food is something that feels so vital to the human experience. We all have a common need to eat, which is necessary to survive. Takeout is just not the same as sitting in a restaurant, a place that has its own unique ambience, the smells of the food, the service (or lack thereof if it is a casual eatery) the sounds, people watching, and so many other things that can’t be described. Though many restaurants are open for patio dining, the risks are too great right now, and most people do not wear a mask when they are not eating and are talking.

We need to move together. Be it individually and physically with a spouse or significant other in an intimate/sexual manner, or in an exercise class, tossing a ball with kids, dancing to a live band outside, or clapping our hands in a concert hall, there is something deeply nonverbal and communicative about motion.

Making music together. For those of us who are musicians, this is one of the most tragic things right now, even though the Internet has managed to force us to be creative and concoct new ways of performing and getting together on the basis of sound. Playing in an orchestra is one of the most spectacular thrills in the human experience, to be surrounded by so many instruments that each do their own thing, and yet come together under the coordination of the conductor’s baton. Playing or singing in any sort of musical ensemble is also something in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Public venues. Who doesn’t love perusing books in a library or bookstore? We see a cookbook cover that features some sort of dish we might like to try making, or a title that piques our curiosity and so we lift the book off the table and skim a few pages to see if we might like reading the whole thing. Looking at clothes in a store, seeing the plethora of fabrics, colors, and shapes, sparks our imagination and gives us joy in trying out a new shirt or dress, and getting feedback either from a friend or a willing follow customer. Any kind of house of worship, be it a Zen meditation center, Hindu temple, or Catholic church, unites us in our need for sacred spaces. Having a place that is set aside for quiet contemplation or religious rituals is significant; for those who are atheist, they may find that a particular place, such as in nature or a particular neighborhood, gives them deep solace.

Social groups of interest. We might like to gather together to speak French at a café, play a pickup game of basketball, or meet to plan a charity project. We bond through these common activities which are often things that others in our family or circle of friends might not enjoy doing. Often, we stick with our friends, but sometimes in groups, there is a friend of a friend who we might enjoy meeting or chatting with.

These are but some of the pleasures being denied to us now, or of risk to us now, due to the unfortunate circumstances of the pandemic. Our socializing is severely limited. This is tragically sad, because as humans, no matter how introverted we are, we are social animals. We are trying all means of creative technology to unite us, but nothing takes the place of in-person interaction. So much has been said about herd immunity; what we need so badly now is herd community.

Play: It’s Not Just for Children

As children, our imaginations run freely. Our cognitive development depends on our ability to create ideas and synthesize all of the new ideas we are learning. It is no sillier for us to imagine a house made of lollipops than it is to learn our ABCs. For many of us, our favorite TV friends were furry monsters on Sesame Street. We liked to take our dolls or Legos and create things; everything with our mind was an open door.

And then what happened?

We grow up and enter a very left-brained world that values order, logic, and rationality. Careers that involve organizing data are very lucrative. Even the arts acquire an ethos of predictability: if that movie doesn’t make X number of dollars over its opening weekend, its leading actor or actress can expect a dip in his or her career. And why even take a risk on making an odd/unusual/original movie, when a predictable formula is a crowd-pleaser, guaranteed to make millions of dollars back? And if you live in a particular geographical area, like the Midwest, it’s best to conform, to look/dress/act like everybody else, with boringly banal tastes. And let’s not forget the Internet – it has homogenized everything down to the font.

But what if you want to swim upstream, to be an artist in this particular world? If you want to be a performing artist, such as an actor or an opera singer? Be a part of these professions where creativity and play are highly valued – no, rather, necessary?

It involves a process of letting go. Of letting go of the rational mind, and diving into the irrational. Of diving into a sense of the imagination, the fantasy, and the spontaneous. Of trusting one’s intuition and deep impulses – we all have them, but we have been educated out of them. It involves taking risks, sometimes not doing what everyone else is doing, and enjoying the process, doing what’s right for yourself. But sometimes it’s not doing what’s right for yourself, but for the character: a mild-mannered man might play the role of a sociopath, or a country girl might adopt a perfect Brooklyn accent.

Highly accomplished people in many fields talk of this as a state of flow (the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is all about this.) Great discoveries in the sciences have been made when scientists were enjoying experimenting. Athletes are literally in a state of play when they are in their games. It is especially evident in music – simply listen to Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” and the playfulness of the band is so evident in the song.

We have to remember periodically to return to a state of play, do things that encourage this. We don’t have to know the result, how things will turn out. We just have to have fun.