With the race to be vaccinated underway, with many celebrating being able to resume a semblance of normality, with churches discussing how to reopen safely, we can perhaps begin to contemplate what the meaning of our pandemic experience has been, recognizing that such contemplation will be partial and frequently revised as we move more and more into our post-pandemic future. One way to approach such contemplation is to consider what we missed most during the long lockdown, where we felt loss most keenly.
As I asked myself and my congregation that question, what I heard, both in my own heart and in the words of others, was the loss of touch, of embrace, of physical closeness, of the unique meaning that comes from bringing our bodies into proximity with the bodies of those in our community, those we love. People talked of missing hugs and handshakes and seeing the bottom halves of beloved faces. I watched, after one carefully distanced memorial service, how all of us, myself included, kept moving instinctively towards one another to give and receive embraces of comfort, only to remember that such behavior was not safe and back away. Again and again I started a conversation with a neighbor, walked closer, then one or the other of us would back away. I passed people on the sidewalk and we made a point of veering apart. I heard a parent wondering what the long term impact might be on his son for having to endure a prolonged time when touch was dangerous, not just unwanted touch but touch given in love, how he should explain to his son that love meant not touching.
Our culture has long held many skewed and pernicious notions about bodies, what constitutes a desirable body and what bodies are deemed ugly, ridiculous, lacking worth. Our own liberal religious tradition has mostly been unhelpful in offering a sacred perspective on the body because of our over reliance on rationality and our scorn for bodily expressions of spirituality. Even clapping along with enthusiasm to Sunday morning music is seen as inappropriate in some of our congregations, much less other physical and embodied responses to joy or inspiration.
So perhaps these long months of prohibition on touching and hugging and being physically close to one another have been a kind of massive correction offered us, a way to rethink what bodies mean and how we value them or dismiss them, and what happens to us when we need to keep our bodies away from other bodies, especially in a community where being physically close brings comfort and meaning. When hugging and touching and gathering in person become possible again, I imagine we will regard those bodily expressions of interconnection quite differently than before the pandemic. I know I will never again give and receive a hug without savoring it deeply, knowing now what it means to lose it.