A 12 months of isolation has triggered a lack of emotional diet


My extroversion muscles are stunted while my introversion muscles bulge.

The New York Times columnist David Brooks at the University of Chicago in 2012.

Posted by David Brooks | The New York Times

I don’t know about you, but I have found the latest stage of the pandemic difficult in its own way. The cumulative effects of a year of repetition, isolation, and stress have resulted in languor – a familiarization with the familiar with a feeling of vulnerability. The shock from a year ago has been replaced by a sluggish ending.

I have the same scattered memory problems that many others describe in this Groundhog Day life: walking into a room and wondering why I went there; I spend an impressive amount of time looking for my earbuds. Forget the names of people and places outside of my COVID bubble.

My extroversion muscles are stunted while my introversion muscles bulge. If you followed me on a personality chart, “Aliveness” would probably be low and “Reserved” higher. “Carefree” down and “fearful” up.

Which makes me wonder how a year of social distancing has changed our personalities. The good news is that the personality traits are pretty stable. They change, but gradually over decades. In normal times, they generally change for the better. Research shows that as people mature, they become calmer, more confident, and more socially sensitive.

But we are shaped by our experiences and it would be shocking if an experience that shakes us so does not shape us in an important way.

Those who have lost a loved one or nearly died themselves have difficult stories to tell. Teens and young adults in general have had a hell of a time, at least in my circles, being forced into solitude at the moment when their identities are most vividly formed.

I have been extraordinarily lucky – in my family and health – and can only talk about the effects of isolation, not the illness itself. I would say the most underrated effect has been the accumulation of absences – the joys we have missed, and not the blows we received. My favorite sound is people laughing at a table in a bar late at night. That has been missing for a year, and I would hate to see a chart that records the number of times Americans laughed each day between 2019 and 2020.

There are all the concerts we didn’t go to, the plays and dinner parties we didn’t enjoy. Few of us have had the pleasure of being in a social environment that we did not know about. This is an emotional nourishment loss. It manifests itself socially as loneliness. Thirty-six percent of Americans, including 61 percent of young adults, report “serious loneliness,” according to a survey by the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard.

I was surprised at how much it felt not just a social problem, but a moral one as well. We say we feel purpose and mission when we serve something greater than us. But I’ve learned this year how much a sense of intention depends on the little acts of hospitality we give and receive every day, sometimes with people we don’t know well.

He throws a dinner party and notices someone’s glass is almost empty. It is that a stranger on a plane confides in you and you are a momentary presence in their life. I used to have my meetings in the same DC coffee shop and all around me I heard conversations between friends offering advice and care to one another.

These small actions, which bear fruit for one another, prove to be enormously strengthening. It turns out it’s not just about the big commitments, it’s also about the little gift exchange you have with your middle ring friends.

These opportunities were reduced and my work expanded to fill the hours. I have unwittingly asked work to provide things that it cannot deliver.

This year should have been the ideal opportunity to take a step back and reflect on yourself. I know a lot of people who have done important inner work this year, and many who were just too exhausted. Lately I’ve had a hard time planning for the future because from the continent of lockdown I found it hard to imagine what life will be like when this is over and we live on the continent of freedom.

The pandemic year feels like a staple in our life narratives. How will we, those of us whose losses have been comparatively small, reflect on this experience five years from now – as a gift, as agony, or perhaps just as emptiness?

I’m trying to describe a year when we were all physically huddled together, but socially and morally less connected. This has led to greater fragility, at least for me, but also to a great feeling of flexibility and greater potential for change.

I found myself burned out on my screens, burned out over the politicization of everything, and rediscovered my love for the New York Mets. People who have gone through an era of vulnerability emerge with great force.

I am also convinced that the second half of this year will be more fantastic than we can currently imagine. We become hyper-esteemers, enjoy every little pleasure, live in a thousand delicious moments, meet friends and strangers and see them with the joy of new and grateful eyes.

David Brooks | The New York Times (Josh Haner / The New York Times)

David Brooks is the Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times.