‘I Didn’t Feel Like Going, but I’m Glad I Did’: My Motto of the Moment

One recent snowy Saturday morning, I coaxed myself out of bed, into semiformal attire and through the door to synagogue. It was the latest in a series of attempts to force myself to, well, do stuff, the kind of stuff that takes me out of my one-bedroom apartment and into human society.

During the service, I stood when everyone else stood, sat when everyone else sat, sang when everyone else sang. I made awkward small talk with my seat neighbor and high-tailed it home before the socializing began in earnest. But once I was safely ensconced on my couch and my frozen feet were slowly turning back to pink, I found I was glad I had gone.

It’s the way I’ve felt almost every time in recent months that I’ve compelled myself to get out of the house. It’s how I felt after I dragged myself to badly soundtracked group fitness classes, several cheesy parties and one lovely weekend retreat, at which I contracted a mild case of Covid. Going out and interacting with people again feels as if it’s going to be difficult — and it often is, at least a little — but I am always glad I did it.

Early in the pandemic, I was one of the millions of Americans who adopted new services, digital platforms and habits in an effort to be safely apart: Instacart instead of in-store grocery shopping, OverDrive instead of library trips, streaming workouts instead of the local gym. These services were helpful (sometimes essential) during the worst months, connecting vulnerable sick and elderly people with necessities, hurting restaurants with hungry customers, bored patrons with e-books.

But even as mask mandates have lifted and case counts have fallen from their winter peak, even as New York City, where I live, has returned to near normal, I’ve found this way of life hard to shake. I’ve gotten used to hyperconvenient, homebound existence. I worry that rather than receding, as emergency measures are meant to do in normal times, our pandemic behaviors are poised to remain a part of life long into the future, eroding communal life and public spaces.

This may seem mostly like a problem of the laptop class: white-collar workers like me who have been able to work remotely throughout most of these past years and can afford the digital conveniences that are sometimes more expensive than their physical-world counterparts. But it touches a wider swath of society than just those who can still work at home.

Consider the numerous surveys that suggest Americans’ appetite for in-restaurant dining will be dampened even after the pandemic is mostly behind us. (People in Washington, D.C., are spending roughly 30 percent less time at retail and restaurant locations compared with January 2020.) We may see more ghost kitchens, places that prepare delivery orders but have no physical restaurant or storefront attached.

Libraries anticipate that the increased interest in digital resources — and the budget reallocations that go along with it — will be with them for the long term. Many houses of worship closed permanently during the pandemic. For others, Zoom services may be a permanent, regrettable addition. Even socializing seems poised to move out of the public sphere and into private homes, with 75 percent of respondents to a Harris Poll survey saying that “during Covid social distancing I realized I preferred smaller social gatherings at home or at friends’ place over going out to bars or restaurants.”

Yes, some surveys have shown that Americans also anticipate doing more in-store shopping of many kinds, compared with before the pandemic (though current behaviors don’t quite bear this out, at least in many blue states). But in combination with other habits — and the structural changes that emerge from them — it’s hard to believe that the future won’t see more delivery, more online services, more isolation, more time spent in the tiny, moated kingdom of home.

Jasmin Tahmaseb McConatha, a professor of psychology at West Chester University, told me that she’s seen a lot of people become used to spending time at home during the pandemic. “It can get to a point that people become like shut-ins,” she said. “They get anxious when they go out.”

I don’t get anxious when I leave home, exactly. I just find that now that the connection between things I need to survive and leaving my house has been severed, my desire to do so has waned.

Going out in the world means confronting people who intrude on our personal space or make demands on us or smear peanut butter on subway poles. People who maybe talk too loudly about an argument they had with their mother or who snore in a movie theater and who can’t — because they have just as much a right to the streets or coffee shop or subway as you do — be gently ushered to the door and handed a coat.

I’ve been trying to remember that the unpredictability of shared social space also introduces the possibility of surprise and the chance of unexpected delight, which is half the joy of living near other people in the first place.

The things that used to make my day in prepandemic times were small and unplanned for — noticing a street sign that prohibited the capture of pigeons or overhearing one stranger scolding another for ordering salad at a barbecue restaurant. I prized the sudden appearance of a man exiting a bar in a dapper hat and three-piece suit, cigar hanging lazily over his lip. Moments like this can’t be planned for or Postmated or arranged.

And weren’t there also moments when the frustration of society was, too, part of the point? The way that the behavior of others (especially on the subway — it seems always to be on the subway), tested our patience and our empathy, all of us reminded, constantly and sometimes gratingly, that our wants and needs and concerns were just one person’s among billions.

I’m not yet a parent, but I imagine this is good practice for life with children. Or for life with challenging people. Or perhaps it’s not practice for anything at all but just life itself, which human societies have long accepted as more painful and joyous and full when lived alongside others.

Dr. Tahmaseb McConatha told me that when you haven’t done something for a while, it’s not going to be comfortable but it’s often worth weathering that temporary discomfort to be part of a community. “If you don’t do it, then there’s going to be something missing from your life,” she said.

We don’t need to get rid of every pandemic-era convenience. I don’t know if I’ll ever attempt to lug home cases of seltzer from the grocery store on my own again. But we should start thinking about the habits that have allowed us to live apart and which of those are harming more than helping as we transition back to living together.

I’m going to keep my digital library app and occasional bulk-food delivery. But instead of restaurant delivery, my husband and I are going to dine out a little bit more. I’m pushing myself back to synagogue — not just Saturday services but the weekday, in-person events, too. “I didn’t feel like going, but I’m glad I did,” has become my motto. I’m trying to find small ways to let down the drawbridge and allow for the unplanned-for joys of a shared social world.

Michal Leibowitz (@michalleibowitz) is an editorial assistant in Opinion.

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