It is the weekend before Thanksgiving, in the ominous year of 2020. The CDC urges people not to gather with others outside of the household on Thursday. COVID infections rise exponentially. Schools are closing, and in the much of the country, winter is foreboding.
If you live in a cold climate, Thanksgiving dinner outdoors is hardly an option. For, Chanukah, Christmas, and New Year’s, we will likely endure the same conditions. I have tried to center myself, mediate, do things to calm my nervous system, using some of my personal tools for stimulating the vagus nerve so as to not feel toxic. I think that is what the cortisol in my body is telling me: slow down, gather, go inward. But I also sense a missingness – a loneliness – alongside a desire to reach out, call people, and connect. (See the effects and remedies for social isolation here.) Away from people, traditions, anticipation of my favorite time of year, I brace for a deeper sense of loss.
Reaching out to people who calm me usually offers immediate relief. But I have noticed – over time throughout this crisis and depending on the day – my friends and I have less and less to give. We increasingly find ourselves sharing the stresses we all feel.
This dilemma, that so many of us do not have much left to give, leaves me wondering how do we understand friendship – or measure it – in such precarious times, when our friends are not as accessible to us, when we are all enduring loss and loneliness chronically? How do we get the energy that our exchange with others gives us when we are under the fog of fatigue created by the computer, when having dinner or drinks with friends is not easily available, and when the holidays themselves pose gross obstacles to connection? How do we maintain human contact when social life – face to face meetings and for many touch – is made, by our condition, relatively inaccessible?
I’ve been trying to answer these questions for myself. My first go to is reading Mary Hunt’s Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship. The book is beautifully written and will serve as a building block for my thinking about a framework for friendship – one that measures our limited contact with people based on the quality of the connection instead of quantity: are we laughing together? Do we part with a sense of joy? Sometimes joy may not be the case. As Emily Dickenson states, “Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.” If parting is difficult maybe we can look at that difficulty as a gift, the world showing us that we indeed have special people in our lives. At other times, we may experience a feeling of conflict or dismay. Can we learn from this experience? Can it bring us closer to ourselves? Does it reveal a relationship that is deepening and changing over the time of the pandemic or one that was too fragile to withstand the depth of loneliness the pandemic has triggered?
Hunt has been not only a resource for exploring answers to these questions but also an inspiration. Her words reveal the complexity and beauty of friendship:
I call friendships “fierce” because of the intensity of attention. It can be hard to be known so well, to be understood and transparent to friends who pay attention. Likewise, we all crave the tenderness that only those who love us can offer. Tenderness does not affect the ferocity, but it is the quality of care and nurture that only friends share.
On December 9th, I am hosting a workshop to explore the concepts in this quote – fierce and tender friendships. The words encompass my experience of this time: a need to be tender to myself and those I love and a fierce desire to see them, touch them, be together. The obstacles presented by the coronavirus reveal to me how I have taken friendship for granted, how much I need it, and how what I share with my friends is sacred. For more on this topic and others like it, I invite you to register here for the workshop, and you can sign up for my newsletter here.
Stephanie Arel is currently an Instructor at Fordham University. She holds an Integrative Trauma Certificate, a training in trauma modalities for clinical treatment, from the National Institute for the Psychotherapies (NIP) in New York, NY and a Certificate in Training for Compassion Fatigue. She has taught courses on human development, trauma, death and dying, violence against women, and faith and critical reason. Her work explores the different ways that people respond to trauma whether they experience trauma firsthand or as a witness. She is the author of Affect Theory, Shame, and Christian Formation and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology. She is currently editing a volume on human dignity and writing a second monograph on the effects of bearing witness to traumatic content on those who work in the field of memorialization: @bearingwitness_nyc