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Has Covid-19 Made American Society Even More Out of Balance?

My wife Sangeeta has said on many occasions that she feels a bit like a “fish out of water” in the United States. She spent her first eleven and a half years living in India and felt like she was part of a tight knit community of friends, neighbors, and family. There were basic societal norms in place which encouraged people to take into account the needs of others and to focus more on the community than on the individual. So it was a bit of a rude awakening to move to a place where people were as independent and individualistic as in the United States, and she is still surprised sometimes by the tendency of many Americans to keep to themselves.

For a long time, I didn’t really understand what she was talking about. Since I have spent almost my whole life living in one of the most urbanized areas of the United States, I couldn’t imagine a place where people lived any differently. I wasn’t sure if I would even want people around all the time and getting into my business. However, as the years have passed and I have experienced both times of isolation and little doses of feeling like a part of something, I have found myself sharing some of her longing for community.

Sure, I may be doing some over-generalizing here. I’m sure that there are many Americans, particularly in small towns and rural areas, who feel that they are part of a more communal culture. I also imagine that there are many lonely people living in India (particularly in large urban areas). But after decades of social commentary by countless writers about America’s individualistic streak, I think there is something to the notion that Americans in general are more independent and self-centered than people of many other countries. This is not, of course, an entirely bad thing. The desire to improve one’s circumstances and the inclination to think independently have played important roles in making the United States such an innovative, economic powerhouse. But there are consequences when a society is skewed too far toward individualism, which helps explain why a country that is so successful on many levels is also nowhere close to leading the world in happiness.

Unfortunately, this tendency toward individualism has likely made the covid-19 pandemic even worse than it had to be. Many Americans have been resistant toward altering their lifestyles or getting vaccinated in order to protect the larger community. But just as profound has been the impact on people’s social lives. With Americans inclined toward independence and social isolation anyway, I suspect that covid-19 pushed millions of Americans even further away from any sense of community. It has been easy for many of us to grow accustomed to staying at home even more than before, and once these new habits start to form, it can be difficult to snap out of it. And now, our society of isolated individuals has been pushed even further out of balance.

It’s been fascinating to see so many people who have been diligently practicing isolation in order to protect themselves but have done so little else to promote their physical and emotional health. We are not meant to be sedentary creatures living in isolation from other humans. We evolved over the course of tens of thousands of years as members of tight-knit bands roaming from place to place with the seasons. Many Americans, who have done a very good job of reducing the prospects of catching covid, are likely even further down the road toward a more slow and steady corrosion of their health.

Covid-19 could have been one of those rare shared experiences in which people pulled together to achieve a common goal and learned to appreciate better the joys of moving around outdoors and of being in close contact with others (whether virtually or in person). While I’m sure that some people have tried to be more healthy physically and have grown to appreciate the importance of community, I mostly see a society that is even more unhealthy and divided than it was before covid-19 struck. Culturally, we were not well equipped to deal with it, and I find myself fearing even more for our nation’s future than I did before the pandemic. I’m not saying that our society is going to collapse any time soon. Instead, it will likely be a slow decay. Our only hope, in the end, is probably for more Americans to start thinking about the good of the community rather than just themselves. And one baby step for all of us would be a little less Netflix and social media and a bit more time moving around outside and having real interaction with others.

Go take a walk. Call someone you haven’t talked to for a while. You’ll probably be glad that you did. And that person you called will be glad too.

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