Opinion | Seeking Connection in a New Normal

And so we emerge, blinking after lockdown, in the strange sunlight of community. After a year of death, a season of hope is suddenly before us, ushered in by President Biden’s promise of enough vaccines for every American adult by the end of May.

Life is never so sweet as in the pivot out of despair, the chance to embrace what I recently saw called “the endorphins of possibility.” Soon, if we’re not staggered by the reckless decision of Texas and a handful of other states to abandon medical caution and common sense, we may experience a summer of normal.

Normal! Will we recognize it when we see it, feel it, live it? Normal is a movable feast, depending on your view. “The U.S. Is Edging Toward Normal, Alarming Some Officials” was a New York Times headline for the ages this week.

Dr. Anthony Fauci has been understandably vague on the return to normalcy, saying that we may still need to wear masks into 2022 and that manufacturers may need to adapt the vaccines to variants. But just consider the comfort of seminormal: travel, small gatherings, baseball, street festivals, (small) family reunions, hugs.

For me, the test of normalcy will be friendship. After the flat tediousness of Zoom, I wonder if we’ll still have the muscle memory for in-person fellowship. Texts and emails are where nuance and jokes go to die. Virtual hangouts are miserable.

A year in a bunker, whether a one-bedroom apartment or a McMansion with a view, is corrosive to companionship.

We lost a year of life expectancy, and more than half a million Americans, to Covid-19. I lost friends. But I was not new to grief, which came early in my adult life, when my two best friends died in separate auto accidents. All of us were in our 20s. I realized then that friendship was fragile and fleeting. Truly good friends are hard to find; harder still is maintaining those bonds.

How rare? Even before the great shutdown, a 2019 YouGov survey in Britain found that about one in four adults had no best friend. Fifteen percent reported no close friends. And 8 percent said they had no friends at all.

Social isolation cannot have helped the epidemic of loneliness. Two-thirds of American and British people surveyed in a 2020 poll said they felt “more lonely” during the pandemic, though that finding has to fall under the category of “obviously.”

Over the past year, I lost at least one friend to the dark side of social media, which I blame on limited social interaction. He became a forever-Trumper, taking in the most deranged conspiracy theories, viewing half of his fellow Americans as evil. A diet of hard-right talk radio, Fox News and the MAGA-sphere of misinformation made him unrecognizable. It’s damn near impossible to maintain a friendship when the other person believes the earth is flat.

If only he’d spent the last year watching Ted Lasso, the unlikely American coach of a British professional soccer team, and the most likable chucklehead on television since Gomer Pyle. (He also had one of the better lines: “Our goal is to go out like Willie Nelson, on a high.”)

Oh, the people I miss! I can’t take a walk in the city without looking down at sewer lids, always thinking of a lifelong friend I haven’t seen in a year or more. His father ran a family foundry, producing manhole covers, as they were once called, stamped with the firm’s name. He loved to point them out.

One year ago, we had no idea how long or how bad the pandemic would be. Worse, we had no compass, no way out of this global nightmare. And we had a president who not only didn’t care, but also spouted all sorts of gibberish about the coronavirus magically disappearing, or treating it with household bleach.

Now, there’s this optimism from The Wall Street Journal: “At the current trajectory, I expect Covid will be mostly gone by April, allowing Americans to resume normal life,” wrote Dr. Marty Makary, a professor of surgery and health policy at Johns Hopkins University.

It was his projection that set off my own endorphins of possibility, even before Biden’s announcement on vaccine availability. Makary’s piece prompted considerable pushback, with critics insisting that his prediction, like lifting the mask mandate in Texas, was dangerously premature.

Still, it got me thinking of the words of the poet T.S. Eliot: “Do I dare/Disturb the universe?” I’m going to err on the side of disturbing with caution. Coming out of our bubbles, there are sure to be new problems with old friends. And old problems preventing us from making new friends.

But I am eager, and not without some anxiety, to revive dormant friendship skills. The thought of conversing with a pal without a mask, of being able to see a smile, a smirk, or watch laughter in motion is tantalizing. So is not worrying about who gets inside the precious quarantine personal dome.

In his book on losing his son Beau to cancer, Joe Biden quotes Immanuel Kant in the epigraph: “Rules for happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.” The fortunate among us had all three under lockdown, harnessed though they were. Postpandemic, we can follow them without restraint.

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Timothy Egan (@nytegan) is a contributing opinion writer who covers the environment, the American West and politics. He is a winner of the National Book Award and the author, most recently, of “A Pilgrimage to Eternity.”

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