(reprinted from Michael Shuman's newsletter 4/24/20)
The film World War Z depicts a pandemic that spreads rapidly across the planet and transforms its victims into terrifying Zombies. What it failed to anticipate was how a pandemic could reduce our social interactions to exhausting, numbing Zoom sessions. Must social distancing mean the loss of our humanity?
Close social interactions are the essence of community. Author Bill McKibben once observed that a shopper has about ten times more social interactions at a farmer’s market than at a supermarket. You know more people, you exchange pleasantries, you chat with vendors, you take delight in the beautiful products (whether or not you buy them). Various social scientists have found that our social interactions have declined precipitously since the 1950s, as our face-to-face relationships have been replaced by robots, cell phones, and online shopping.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, these trends have jumped off the charts. We now are running into supermarkets, bandit-like with masks over our faces, avoiding people as much as possible. If there are people down an aisle, we carefully reroute to dance around them as we score the last remaining toilet paper packet.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve also noticed something else happening during this pandemic. Now that we’re forced to avoid human contact, we are beginning to appreciate—finally—what we’ve been losing.
I say—more please!
In that spirit I want to call attention to eight pandemic responses that seem to be shortening our social distance—and that we all should consider embracing:
(1) Call Home More – Our elders have taken the biggest hit during this virus. Not only are they the most vulnerable among us, they also have had to assume the highest degree of isolation for their survival. My mom, 97, cannot receive guests in her elder-care apartment a thousand miles away in St. Louis, but I check in on her by phone several times a week.
(2) Prepare a Living Will – Doctors on the frontlines now are making an unusual request: Make a living will, so that if we get deathly sick, our loved ones will know what do to. This, of course, requires a serious conversation with our family members that can bring us closer to one another and cherish each other more. I just updated mine.
(3) Give More – Tens of millions of others are in an unprecedented world of hurt. They’ve lost loved ones, cannot work, are drowning in bills, and cannot even find food. If are doing okay, please donate more and double your customary tips. If you’re not, please ask for help—you’re not alone.
(4) Adopt One Local Business – Millions of local businesses are on the brink of bankruptcy. You can’t save all of them, but maybe you can save just one. Adopt it. If it’s a restaurant, maybe pre-purchase $1,000 of meals from them over the next year (or whatever you can afford), just to make sure it has enough cash to stay in business. (I’ll have more to say about this option in another blog soon.)
(5) Hire Your Neighbors – Perhaps you never introduced yourself properly. Now that you’re home more, please reach out to the folks next door. Your neighbors may need you. And soon you may need them. How about making a directory of the skills of everyone in your neighborhood, so that those with money can buy their services and those without can barter or exchange them through Time Dollars? A great example is The Front Porch, which has created hundreds of neighborhood directories in Vermont. Accordingly, I just did an upgrade to my website and hired a hungry designer who I discovered lives ten houses away.
(6) Strengthen Your Personal Resilience – Now that people are home with more time on their hands, municipal sanitation services are reporting a spike in the junk people are jettisoning. (Marie Kondo, the avatar of “tidying up,” must be ecstatic.) But let’s go further. Plant a garden so you can grow more of your own food. Figure out where energy is leaking out of your house, so you can bring down your utility bill. Get a bicycle to become less dependent on your car. Exercise more to fortify your immune system. These are measures that make you more self-reliant, save money, and inoculate you for the next crisis.
(7) Zoom Around the World – If you must Zoom, make it intentional. My local economy work has connected me with friends and colleagues all over the planet. I’m now reaching out to and working with them more. Last night I did a joint webinar with Helena Norberg-Hodge, a colleague based in Byron Bay, Australia. What better time to embrace our shared planetary plight?
(8) Localize 1-5% of Your Nest Egg – Finally, think about the one resource most of us have—our retirement savings. Right now, they are likely sitting in 401ks and IRAs made up exclusively of global stocks and bonds that are plummeting in value. How about moving some of it into your local businesses desperate for new finance? Or helping a young adult get out of a student loan? Or getting your neighbor out of credit card debt? My new book, Put Your Money Where Your Life Is, can show you exactly how to do this.
These are all simple things that can fundamentally transform our communities. Not only are they possible, we’re doing them already and just need to step on the gas. If you have other ideas, please share them on my blog at www.michaelhshuman.com.
Remember that no matter how many “stimulus” bills the federal government passes, the most important stimulus starts with ourselves, our families, and our neighborhoods. Lean in!