By Diane Roston
“I am running away.”
“If you run away, I will run after you.”
These opening lines from the children’s picture book “The Runaway Bunny” by Margaret Wise Brown are a small boy’s threat followed by his mother’s response. Each time the child threatens to transform himself into a fish, a rock, a bird, a flower, his mother says she will transform herself so that she will find him.
This mother’s pursuit is the opposite of our current situation of “social distancing,” a term originally coined to represent the need to maintain distance from each other in order to prevent the coronavirus from spreading from one person to another.
I am wrestling with this term “social distancing.” In my opinion, now, a time of shared distress, is not a time to be socially distant.
Last week, I was pleased to read that the World Health Organization (WHO) agreed during its press conference on March 20.
Dr. Maria Van Karkhove announced that she and her WHO colleagues will replace the term “social distancing” with “physical distancing” because while physical distancing is essential at this time, “that doesn’t mean that socially we have to disconnect from our loved ones, our family.”
A recent article in The Washington Post quotes Professor Daniel Aldrich, director of the Security and Resilience Program at Northeastern University, that “social ties are the critical element to getting through disasters.” Aldrich studies how communities show resilience during wars, natural disasters, and pandemics, and highlights the importance of social connectedness.
Instinctively, my patients know the importance of social connection. They are staying connected by telephone, Zoom, chat rooms. They are attending exercise classes, religious services, support groups, via video. They are taking walks with friends or family members, albeit at a safe distance. They are waving to neighbors and chatting across porches.
These days, we are all the runaway bunny, wanting to be kept under the protective eye of our family, our chosen family, our colleagues, our friends, our community.
At the end of the story, the runaway bunny says, “If you run after me, I will become a little boy and run into a house.”
His mother responds, “If you become a little boy and run into a house, I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.”
Now more than ever we need that strong sense of social connection.
Social connecting. Physical distancing. At least six feet apart, without the hug.
Diane Roston, M.D., is the medical director at West Central Behavioral Health.