Dating to primordial roots, human beings have always been a pack animal. Even early hominid species were discovered to have foraged and raised their young in packs. “It takes a village,” goes the old saying, one that sounds cliche until you live it.
That village organization has undergone radical changes in the last fifty years. In the fifties and sixties my parents recall being sent out onto the street to play with the neighborhood, pack friends that they still keep in touch with today. The whole family, including grandmothers and aunts and uncles lived in the same neighborhood.
My own experience was quite different, roughly 25 years later. Even before my parents divorced, we had cousins that lived four or five hours away, grandparents in Florida, other grandparents in other parts of the state, and a few uncles and cousins in California and Colorado. The holiday season often saw these relatives fly in to visit, or we would fly to them to have Thanksgiving or Christmas.
I am now the parent, roughly 25 years later. Pre-covid, visitations were patchy, based on relationships that went in and out; a visit on Christmas here or there, or Thanksgiving, or when a baby was born; they got increasingly sporadic with grandparents changing coasts, or family members drifting in and out of familial embrace. Family politics, in-law complications, often marred holidays and affected the nature of our ‘circle.’ However, new circles did form in our gypsy-like existence: our children’s teachers, new friends, coworkers, all gained clan status.
Covid has fast-forwarded this process a generation by my estimation. Our ‘village’ is, at best, a collection of interactive figures on a screen, very brief outdoor encounters with semi-masked acquaintances, and the desperate attempts of teachers and officials to stay proximal to us (and ours to them, of course). At worst, it’s basically no one. Our pack has been reduced to five.
Any family living through this isolation can tell you that a village reduced to five offers plenty of challenges: civil discord (war, at times), social-emotional regression (for the kids, too…), depression, anxiety, apathy, and on. Our relationships stagnate and fester. For example, my daughter and I used to play card games before bed, but we got so sick of crazy-8s that we stopped playing altogether, the novelty of the experience seeming so forced; even the concept of play itself merged too closely with the brushing of teeth or hanging up of jackets to be considered for extemporaneous bonding. Now we just wish each other good night, more or less. These costs will seem to linger on as the virus does, the end point looking more like a long slow dissipation versus a defined endpoint.
It has made me feel the importance of community, a platitude that rings like a byline of a resume that tries too hard, the importance of a village, if nothing else, to diversify experience and challenge vapid thinking. How a series of small relationships that seem of little value individually can sum to a collective experience, how the eye-rolling parent events and town meetings I avoid like death can be so critical.
Without a pack, we are indefinite, inert, and cosmically pointless. Subjecting our children to this existentiality at such a young age is simply too much to bear. But before I beat myself up too much, I have to recall the reminder of simple truth: the cold emptiness of isolation invoked is all done to save their lives.