Between Contagion and Isolation, There the Dance Is

By Sarah Mali & Maya Bernstein

1. Contagion & IsolationThe Downsides of a Profound Polarity

If you are reading this now and healthy, you are amongst the blessed. That’s the good news. But the bad news is that we are facing not one, but two, extreme phenomena that are enveloping us right now even if we are lucky enough to avoid suffering physically from Coronavirus.

The first is Contagion. We are living in a world in which we face an invisible enemy. Each surface is terrifying; each human becomes a potential threat. The fear and dread generated by contagion stem from profound doubt: we literally have no way of knowing where danger lurks, and that doubt leaves us profoundly anxious. There are no boundaries around contagion; it is all-pervasive.

The other experience we face is isolation. Isolation is a response to the panic around contagion; it is the opposite side of the coin. We strive to put boundaries up to protect ourselves. Many of us are in almost total home quarantine; those of us who are allowed to go out are too afraid to do so. One of our children said the other night, “my lips miss kissing.” Our lips miss kissing, our arms hugging, our hands shaking. It’s growing hard to manage ourselves in this isolation, to self-care and care for others that don’t have the dreaded virus. Isolation may slow down contagion and protect our hygiene, but it certainly doesn’t cure our collective issues and that’s because it isn’t the whole story.

The negative aspects of these states are actually the devastating downsides of the most beautiful parts of our humanity: being social and connected and being individual and separate. We need to help people connect to one another and manage themselves during this time. And the idea that our social selves can heal our individual pain is very Jewish.

2. Passover as Warning

The inherent dangers of the extreme of both contagion and isolation are at the heart of the Passover story. While our current situation is very different in many ways from the story of dictatorship, slavery, and racism that is at the core of the Exodus narrative, the themes are eerily familiar, and remind us of why contagion and isolation can be so detrimental. These themes, and the phenomenon that have caused them, have existed in different forms throughout our human and national history.

After the family of Jacob made its way down to Egypt and grew as a people, the Egyptian nation, headed by a new Pharaoh, began to fear contagion: “Look, the people of the sons of Israel is more numerous and vaster than we. Come, let us be shrewd with them lest they multiply and then, should war occur, they will actually join our enemies and fight against us…” (Exodus 1:10, translation by Robert Alter). This fear is familiar. It has been rampant in our world even before the virus. Who is in and who is out? To whom are our borders open? Who is a friend and who is a foe? Now we don’t even open the doors to our homes when the faceless delivery-people bring us what we need.

This fear of contagion from the other, in the biblical story and in more recent historical events, is ultimately a fear of self-annihilation. Pharaoh is afraid that the Israelites will wipe out the Egyptians. We are afraid of catching the virus and becoming sick, very sick, dying. This fear – the fear of the annihilation of the self – leads us to isolate ourselves and others. Pharaoh made the Israelites live separately, in the land of Goshen. This isolation increases our fear of one another, and can, eventually, lead us to hate the other. One of our children, five years old, learned about social distancing, and while out taking a walk and seeing a stranger walking a few feet ahead on the sidewalk shouted – “watch out, an enemy!” The fear of contagion leads to isolation; the extreme of isolation leads to fear of others, hatred of others, and, eventually, the oppression of others. The very next verse in Exodus reads, “And they set over them forced-labor…and they abused them…and they came to loathe the Israelites.”

When we are afraid of each other, everyone becomes the Dangerous Other. Our circle becomes smaller and smaller, and the risks of fearing, and then, abusing and hating all Others is severe. If we have too much fear of contagion, too much isolation, we run the risk of profound harm – to others and to ourselves. How might we avoid the alienation and casual cruelty or worse that is naturally born from fear? How might we continue to consider the other with empathy even as we consider them enemies, endangering us?

3. Its Not All Bad The Benefits of these States

Let us remind ourselves of the positive aspects of both contagion and isolation. Meditating on the blessings of each of these conditions might help us mitigate the dangers of these very same conditions.

In our separate parts of the world, we’ve heard people say that it’s good to get back to basics, to return to a more localized and perhaps parochial way of living. And it does feel good. There is an upside to restoring a sense of locality to anchor what have been our hectic global lives of late. Going inwards into our homes provides an opportunity for nurturing the people and values closest to us, and creates a valuable intimacy and rootedness of being around those akin to you.

And as for contagion, well, it emerged from much of what was celebrated only months ago: an interconnected world, built on the ethics of free mobility and human exchange. It prizes international reciprocity and cultural diversity as a resource for creativity and shared wisdom.

When we attack contagion with isolation something insidious happens to our sense of global interconnectedness across and beyond boundaries. And when we forget about isolation, looking only outward, forgetting to connect with ourselves and our own values and ideals, and those closest to us, we are also at risk – of losing what is local and intimate.

We believe that between chaotic contagion and controlled isolation there is a third space, an “in-between” space; a murky middle rather than an “either/or.” For isolation and contagion paint a false reality of the complex lives we lead, because we live in both a boundaried and boundary-less world; that is the nature of living local and global lives. Our challenge is to inhabit the space in which we appreciate and realize our potential as interconnected social beings across traditional boundaries, and understand that we are an intimate, interconnected tapestry of beating hearts and minds. This tapestry depends upon our nourishing ourselves and those closest to us. And it is incomplete if we do not reach out across our own boundaries to others.

4. Can We Embrace theInBetween?

The mindset of connection, of living in the paradox of local and global, is a mindset of empathy that is crucial to maintain during these trying times. Shifra and Puah, the midwives in our Passover Egypt story who refused to kill Israelite babies, are models of this. One interpretation claims that these women were non-Jews who bravely refused to blindly follow the edicts of isolation and reached across to the other. They “let the children live.” Defying the harsh decree by Pharoah, they refused to turn away from humanity and life. Pharaoh’s daughter, also a non-Jew, acted similarly – she “saw the ark amidst the reeds and … took it.” She opened her eyes and allowed herself to see how extreme and harmful the state of Isolation was, and she extended herself. It is particularly poignant that these characters are not Israelites. Reaching across to the other, risking something of self, is critical to avoid the fear mentality that leads to the dangers of contagion and isolation. They modeled this complex in-between space, of staying open, keeping our eyes and hearts open, pushing past our own fears, seeing ourselves in others, and taking risks.

What does this in-between third space mean in practice? It involves striving to nourish the positive parts of both isolation and contagion, without falling into the dangerous traps of each. It involves keeping our hearts open and ourselves connected beyond our current social distance clans. It involves teaching our children not only fear, but kindness, empathy. It involves celebrating historic actions to benefit someone other than ourselves, and then striving to emulate them.

Here are some suggestions:[1]

  • Nurture yourself while in isolation. What might it mean to use this time to grow, to water the soil of your own self, your own family, those who are closest to you?
  • Appreciate all that you have. Cultivate a gratitude practice. Meditate on your blessings.
  • Be generous with yourself and others. None of us is dealing with a full deck in this situation, either informationally or emotionally. Be forgiving of your own missteps, and do not judge others harshly.
  • When you feel shaky – reach out. Call a friend. Do not shut yourself off. Do not fall into the pit of isolation.
  • Reach out specifically to those whom you know are alone.
  • Recognize and say hello to people you don’t know, especially those who feel different from you – cross social boundaries and norms. As you walk down the street or in a park and keep your distance, remember to share your smile, to share kind words, with strangers.
  • Be aware that people around you are suffering, economically, socially, physically and that they may need an extra hand. Think about the people in your orbit and beyond it with concrete needs, and help them through their loss, and specifically support people who are on the front lines – health care providers, food and delivery providers; they are risking themselves for our protection.
  • Educate yourselves and your loved ones about how others are experiencing this. The similarities and differences across the globe are profound and unprecedented.
  • Become intimate with your fear, with the monsters under your bed. Get to know them. Don’t let them and their giant shadows get the better of you. Talk about them. Shine light on them. Make them known, so that they don’t control you and get the better of you.
  • Learn how to be relentlessly optimistic and brutally realistic at the same time. Don’t reassure yourself or others unrealistically, but strive to remain a constant, steadfast presence of hope.

Contagion and isolation can cause us to detach. Being social, being connected, touching one another, isn’t an illness; it is the very core of what makes us who we are. It is the very definition of life. We forget that at our peril. Realize that you are resourceful. Remember you are an integral member of this amazing species called humanity. And believe, and act upon the belief that, with our collective resourcefulness and compassion for one another, we will get through this. Perhaps even with a little more wisdom, humility, and empathy than we had before.

Sarah Mali is the Vice President of the Masa Leadership Center at Masa Israel Journey.

Maya Bernstein is on faculty of the Masa Leadership Center, Georgetown’s Institute for Transformational Leadership, Yeshivat Maharat, and the Wexner Foundation.

[1] Thanks to Marty Linsky for many of these concrete suggestions