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The Human Touch

The current consort and I have become so accustomed to our nightly commute from the dinner table to the television, I’m wondering if we will ever again want to leave the house after the dinner plates are deposited in the dishwasher.

In normal times, on any given night, at least one of us would be rushing out to a play rehearsal, a show, choir practice or a committee meeting of some kind .

When this is all over we will have to be genetically reprogrammed, the slippers will have to be surgically removed and the sitting room door will have to be barred if we are to return to the way things were.

All joking aside, the world has changed and this lock-down is having a serious impact on people

A friend of mine and her husband were out walking near their home recently when they stopped to greet a fellow-walker. They knew him to see but never really met him. In the course of conversation he told them they were the first people he had spoken to since Christmas.

Another friend visiting a garden shop last week was told by one of the assistants that, a few days previously, an elderly customer, while admiring roses on display outside, got a thorn rose stuck in her thumb. Without thinking the assistant took her hand in his and extracted the thorn. “Oh,” he said, “I shouldn’t have done that.” After assuring him there was no need to apologise she told him he was the first human being to have touched her in a year.

Goodness knows what stories will emerge when all this is over. But even before all this began a cultural and social phenomenon called ‘the atomisation of society’ was emerging as a sort of perverse outcome of mass communication. This creeping and insidious process, exacerbated by social media, is driving social isolation. It manifests itself in circles of friends and circles of belonging that are getting smaller and smaller, in some cases reduced to the immediate family and in others to the individuals themselves.

A priest friend of mine who ministered in a rural parish for most of his life found himself in later years in a city parish. He was amazed at the number of people living lives completely isolated from their neighbours and the broader community, whose houses or flats are like sealed units and whose needs are fed by take-aways and TV.

In Japan there are over 500,000 people known as ‘hikikomori’, variously described as shut-ins or latter day hermits they hardly ever leave their houses or apartments. The phenomenon isn’t particular to Japan, it is also evident in South Korea, Hong Kong, across the US and Europe. Some who opt for this lifestyle have a technology addiction but for many the demands of modern society have become too much.

The trend was recognised over quarter of a century by American political scientist, Robert D Putnam. In 1995 he published a thought-provoking essay, later expanded into a book, entitled “Bowling Alone – The decline in America’s Social Capital.” In both works he examined the decline in public participation and engagement in America. Using bowling as an example he pointed out that in the mid 1990s there were far more people bowling across America than 20 years previously, however, the number of people participating in bowling leagues had suffered a serious decline. People were bowling alone.

Putnam attributed the fall-off in public engagement to a multitude of factors, including work pressures, suburbanisation, commuting and generational change. He reckoned 25pc of the decline was due to the individualisation of media – meaning television. What would he make of the granular individualisation driven by social media, when the device in our hands predicts our preferences and has the power to lock us into our own echo chamber?

There is a great danger that among the outcomes of these difficult days will be a further atomisation of our society. While I have no doubt, as soon as the vaccines get the upper hand and the lock-downs end there will be great fiestas of public engagement. I also fear that once we have completed our first round of handshaking and hugging, we will retreat to a default position of distance and self-isolation. Something in us will make us recoil from crowds and crowded places.

We will need time to practice walking together, sitting with one another and enjoying one another again.

In that regard, could I mention something happening in my own locality with nationwide participation. Clare Drama Festival and the local community radio station, Scariff Bay Community Radio, are running a competitive festival of radio plays from now until Easter. Twenty entries have been received from Antrim to West Cork and are currently being broadcast on Saturday and Sunday nights at 8.00pm continuing until Easter Sunday night, when the final adjudication takes place live on air. Tune in online or listen back at www.scariffbayradio.com.

The festival mightn’t get us off the couch and out of the slippers but it might give us a longing to get moving again.


First published in the Farming Independent on Tuesday, March 2nd 2021

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