The pushmi-pullyus of Doctor Dolittle were two-headed beasts who were impossible to creep up on, and who looked very reminiscent of a llama with no rear end. Hugh Lofting wrote Doctor Dolittle stories for his children in wartime letters, when the scenes of war were either ‘too horrible or too dull to describe’. The Doctor can speak to animals, and thus creates understanding between species. Lofting’s consistent theme was that, by reaching out to one another through the offer of communication and friendship, anything is possible. Lofting fervently hoped that, with the right attitude and the right tools, living together in harmony was not such an outlandish idea; it isn’t surprising that someone surviving the WWI trenches would hope to avoid a repeat.
Human beings are inherently pushmi-pullyus, in that we are fundamentally physically individual (with the notable exception of conjoint twins!) but we exist in social structures. Our social structures frame our sense of our own identities as well as our sense of purpose and belonging. My worst fears of the approaching post-pandemic world are around the societal shift that may be driven by physical distancing, at the very time that the world is sharing a combined experience unlike anything in history.
It is relatively rare for an entire country to have a similar shared experience, let alone the globe. World War II was probably the last experience that united much of the globe, but even that did not touch every corner. The Spanish Flu might have engendered more commonality but the lack of communications in so many places meant that the 1918-1920 pandemic experience was shared generally in the aftermath, rather than in the experience. Today we have a world where a disease has spread rapidly to all corners of the globe in 6 months and there are few countries that have not experienced COVID-19. And if they haven’t yet experienced it, there is no doubt that they know about it and are acting to prevent its arrival. A large proportion of countries are locking down their people in similar ways and at the same time and most countries have closed their borders to everyone except their own nationals. Today is notable in that, for the first time in many decades, there has not been a single international arrival in New Zealand.
Most amazing, in the sense of the history of the world, is that we can all talk about what is happening to us, with each other, in real time. We can see images and sounds of what is happening across our own country and in other countries. We can call, Zoom, Skype, iMessage, House Party to discuss our state or have virtual drinks and use Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to broadcast our thoughts and frustrations. There is a feeling of the potential to be united, as well as the potential to throw off the bonds of the pre-existing societies into which we had blindly meandered. We know what most other people are experiencing, and we know we are all suffering together, though some clearly far more than others (not that this is unusual at a world, country or community scale).
However, while we are becoming united through virtual connectivity, so many gains of past decades are potentially being lost through physical distancing. My memories of New Zealand of the 1970s was a place where people shook hands upon introduction and departure. I remember a degree of shock after joining the University of Canterbury Canoe Club in the late 1980s, where I found that hugging was the norm as a greeting. This was not my norm and I was not at all sure if I was comfortable with it; however that feeling soon passed and someone who didn’t hug you upon meeting you started to seem standoffish. Chris experienced this from a very different perspective. He grew up in Chile, a Latin American-influenced country where physical closeness was a norm, and New Zealand behaviours seemed quite cold and strange when he moved here to start University in 1983.
Obviously, it is far too simplistic to think that hugging upon meeting people changed the way people thought about each other, or that this is a critical measure of general human closeness. However, touch solidifies empathy and creates pathways across boundaries. We know touch is an antidote to loneliness and that it boosts the immune system. For me, the increase in the scale of touch in New Zealand greetings is symbolic of, and occurred parallel to, a raft of changes in New Zealand society which have resulted in greater openness towards other people in a multitude of ways. Our society has become accepting of different concepts of gender, different concepts of sexual relationships, and different cultures, in a way that would have been completely foreign and shocking in the New Zealand of 50 years ago. I don’t want to go back!
Of course, people maintaining physical distances to avoid infecting one another with disease does not automatically throw us back into the 1970s, like some sort of strange time travel machine that sets its clock based on the mode of greeting when people meet. But what effect will physical distancing have long term? We know it is likely to be necessary until the advent of a vaccine, up to 18 months away. It close to breaks my heart to see children look terrified when they pass me on a bicycle track. A month ago we would have smiled and waved to each other, today their parent guards them carefully towards the edge of the path, and hovers over them like I might rush over and sneeze violently. When I am lucky enough to see a friend in the street at some point in the future (because we live in the country this hasn’t happened in the last four weeks), we will move to an uneasy distance apart and, presumably, use whatever has been deemed a socially appropriate greeting for an infectious age. What will we lose because it isn’t a hug?
I am horrified to find that we are now careful of physically touching my mother, even though she is inside our bubble. This developed during the early days of lockdown, when we couldn’t be sure that we hadn’t been exposed to COVID-19. And it also reared its head when she thought she might be ill. Habits are easily made, and notoriously hard to break. And, in this case, lack of touch will become ‘right’. Physical distancing requirements in our communities will mean retirement villages and rest homes full of elderly people who are starved of touch, for whom even a hand on the arm will seem like a potentially threatening gesture. What will childcare centres look like? It starts to be unthinkable; a crying child will be herded to a bed to comfort itself because touch by a working caregiver is too great a risk?
Our pushmi-pullyu trade-off will mean we preserve ourselves and others as individuals through not dying of COVID-19, but this will come at the cost of losing a part of our social selves. How great that loss will be remains to be seen. How worthwhile the loss will be, is very hard to gauge. Right now, there is a part of me that feels deeply sad at the prospect of something that is yet to come.