Social isolation in the days of Covid has had a profound effect on the nature of and opportunities for friendship. Particularly towards the beginning of the pandemic, when each of us was instilled with a deep suspicion of close physical interaction with anyone not part of our household unit, friendship became a highly mediated enterprise. Connections were made and maintained almost exclusively through the electronic media. Long rambling phone calls and video encounters through WhatsApp, FaceTime, Skype, and, of course, Zoom.
Phone calls were nice and still are, although, originally, they were meant to be an adjunct to primary experience physical encounters and not a substitute for them, unless the person being called lived far away. Video, because it had both auditory and visual elements, became a more accurate replacement for physical encounters, although the key senses of touch, smell, and taste were missing in this new experiential translation. And, of course, being able to see things and people in three dimensions was also missing.
This subtle sensory impoverishment has had a profound effect on the deep-bonded relationships that we call friendships. Friendships have become profoundly influenced by the sensory vehicles – the smartphones and the computers – that are conveying them in today’s world. Friendships today seem to be more attenuated and much less strongly rooted. Because there is much less grounding involved, there is less of a sense of unconditional connection. As a replacement to unconditional connection, in order to hold the relationship together, and to sustain it over time, people are much more likely to turn to transactional interactions. Defined, discrete exchanges of defined discrete things and defined discrete services. Of course, transactional interactions have always been a part of friendships, but not to the extent that they are now. The point is that without good grounding, there aren’t good environmental templates to support and to help hold relationships together. Transactions involving free-floating goods and services are the principal entities left to give people in any kind of a relationship, an affirmation of their connection. Otherwise, the numbness of the experiential vacuum in which they reside has a way of mitigating against any kind of meaningful connection at all. The connection is maintained by constant movement, by constant exchanges that act as a substitute for authentic organic imprints created by things said, things done together, simply being together. The small intimate interactions that create solid memories. In a world without strong grounding in one’s living environment, one is forced to try to find grounding in one’s defined discrete things and in the defined discrete people one encounters. The focus on things is the foundation for the materialism ever present in modern Western society. And one bundles together all these things to create a surrogate grounding, an artificial grounding that gives a temporary sense of things being permanent. And with things, it is easy to make one the center of them in such a way that one becomes the center of his universe. In an experiential vacuum where people are floating around, one develops this grounding with others through the exchange of goods and services, and with this exchange comes the closest kind of approximation to a predictable security that is available in an experiential vacuum.
And yet it is a very imperfect substitute for the kind of grounding that is available in a more traditional natural living environment. It is a grounding that requires the constant movement of exchange in order to be able to maintain it. In real grounding one is first still under the canopy of a template of organic stimulation and then one can reach out to deep-bond with the people with whom one wants to be friends. The natural template acts like a guarantor for the maintenance of the relationship.
Without this natural template, one is much more likely to enter shallow-bonded relationships that simply don’t offer the satisfaction and the psychological security that people crave. Even with lots of these shallow-bonded relationships, one is left with a feeling of emptiness. The imprints that go back and forth in the exchanges between people don’t become preserved. It is like they are contingent imprints. They last as long as the person making the imprints is deemed useful with the goods and services that he is able to impart. When they no longer serve any short-term purpose for the person receiving them, the relationship falls apart. Without that natural template, it is difficult for the person receiving the imprints to appreciate them as well as the person making them intrinsically.
This is a serious situation, because without deep-bonded friendships, the structure of community cannot be maintained in the long run. And, in truth, although I have focused on friendships in this article, what I have said can apply to all deep-bonded relationships including family and romance. When people end up in their own solipsistic world as a result of the failure of relationships, the human race will be in serious trouble.