What Will Motivate Us to Actually Connect with One Another, If Not a Pandemic?

With a return to normalcy on the horizon, it’s time to ask ourselves what we want it to look like.
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PHOTO BY DEIRDRE NUEBEL

When I received the second dose of the COVID vaccine a few weeks ago, a clinic worker in charge of monitoring patients’ post-vaccine symptoms looked at me as if I was crazy.

Maybe I was.

About 12 minutes into the mandatory post-vaccine waiting period, I decided to count the number of tiles on the ceiling. That is, I tried to, before giving up and deciding to just think about counting them instead.

I sat surrounded by a dozen other people in chairs spaced six feet apart. Backs hunched, earbuds in, they tapped, scrolled, and swiped through whatever was appearing on their phones. I imagine I would have been doing the same, had I not left my blue light glasses at home — getting a headache from staring at my phone without them would not help my mission to avoid potential side effects from the vaccine at all costs.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, many of us have wondered when things will go back to normal. But as I sat at the vaccine clinic watching people engage with their phones instead of one another, things felt like they already had.

I could brush this off as a generational occurrence; I could say that disconnection between phone-addicted 20-year-olds like myself is inevitable, especially when they are waiting to leave a vaccine clinic and get on with their days.

I think doing so, though, would ignore a much harsher reality: Many of us, regardless of age, receive more dings on our phone than knocks at our door. We opt for self-checkout machines instead of cashiers and we ask for the WIFI password as soon as we check into a hotel.

This kind of social distancing isn’t a product of the pandemic, rather it’s been years in the making. We want things to go back to normal, but even before the pandemic, connection has felt less like something we’ve been able to achieve and more like something we’ve chased after.

We seek connection via friend requests on Facebook and right swipes on Tinder. We look for it professionally on LinkedIn and passive-aggressively on Twitter. We sift through Instagram stories and scroll through TikToks, all while waiting rooms remain silent because hellos feel too out of place.

I believe the pandemic will come to an end. But unlike our battle with COVID-19, there is no vaccine for a disconnected society. Still, I must believe our lack of connection will come to an end, too, because I don’t want to imagine a future where it doesn’t.

But I do wonder what it will take, if not a pandemic, for us to change the ways we seek out connection. After being left to our own devices for over a year, how much longer will it take for us to realize that we’ve been scrolling and tapping and swiping endlessly, still left unfilled, still left looking for something we haven’t managed to find.

When the pandemic is over, I hope couples say “I do” without counting who’s on their guest list. I hope grandparents exhale while they hug their grandchildren and I hope 18-year-olds look for their parents in a crowd of people while they walk across a stage to receive a piece of paper, a handshake, and their last memory of high school.

But I don’t hope things go back to normal. I’d rather we come together to create a new kind of normal, one that doesn’t rely on a strong internet connection, but a strong people connection.

We’ll never get back the moments the pandemic stripped away from us. But slowly, as children have birthday parties again and Saturdays turn back into game days, we will get our moments — new moments — and whether we are actually there for them won’t be a virus’ jurisdiction; it will be ours.

Let’s create a new normal that looks a little crazy.


Kaitlyn Nuebel is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh and an intern at Pittsburgh Magazine.

Categories: Perspectives