All my career, I’ve studied what happens when the virtual encroaches on the most private moments of our lives. Having screens always on and always-on-us may be convenient, but it’s also an assault on our ability to truly take in another person. It is an assault on our empathy.
Before quarantines and lock downs, I knew—we all knew—that our phones offered so many ways to connect but inhibited deep bonds of love and friendship. We were always distracted and thinking about our next text or call. When we hid behind screens during conversations, we felt less vulnerable. That could feel like a plus, but it had its price: vulnerability is the first step towards intimacy.
Then, the pandemic. Suddenly, the screens that had closed us down to the most meaningful connections were the only way we could open up to each other. I had once said we were “alone together.” Now we were truly “together alone.”
My research on families and workplaces suggested that we do best when we look up from our screens and reclaim conversation. For a year now, I’ve been in a position where I couldn’t follow my own advice. I couldn’t make eye contact with my colleagues or students. The closest I could come was staring into the green light on the top of my laptop screen, which gives the other person the illusion that you are looking into their eyes. But to sustain that illusion, you end up looking at nothing at all.
COVID-19 meant that suddenly, many were denied the comfort of friends and family. What had been most sustaining, a visit to your child, grandchild, or elderly parent, was overnight, declared too dangerous. I learned the discipline of unaccustomed solitude. I came to understand how much I had relied on the easy conviviality of cafés, markets, and neighborhood restaurants, what sociologists call “third places.”
In March 2020, we all became as though voyagers in another country.
COVID’s tragedy became an opportunity to see our country anew. Some of what we could see was positive: the importance of family ties, the generosity of neighbors, the grace of small kindness. But much was searing: Systemic racism and police violence. Our broken health care system. COVID’s dislocations made all of these visible.
I know from experience, from lessons that I learned as a young woman, that such dislocation can be a gift.
When I was nineteen, a Radcliffe junior, my mother’s death led to a family crisis. I had to drop out of college. My grandfather wanted me as far away from my stepfather as he could manage. He bought me an Icelandic Airways ticket to Paris (the cheapest one— from New York, to Reykjavik, to Luxembourg, and then on by bus to the Gare d’Orsay).
In Paris, I cleaned the apartment of a bourgeois couple in the 7th arrondissement in exchange for a room. They called me their “Portuguese” because most of the women who had done my job were Portuguese. I floated, out of names and country. I could see new things. The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss had a name for this kind of displacement: dépaysement, decountrifying. Ethnographers leave everything familiar to gain a fresh perspective on what they have left behind. You understand that what you have always seen as normal blinds you to what it suppresses.
I went to France at an auspicious time to be making this private discovery. It was the year after May 1968 with its political and social upheaval. Many French people declared that the standard rules for how things worked would no longer apply. The May days began with a revolt against the atrophied French university but went on to a more general challenge of how French hierarchical norms operated in every aspect of life. French polite society used elaborate rules to take the spontaneity out of social encounters. “This is not your father’s revolution,” was a slogan of the May barricades. Then, France exploded with speech that defied boundaries of class and convention. The French became strangers to their country. But closer to each other.
When I later studied at the University of Chicago, the anthropologist Victor Turner taught me about living in such betwixt-and between times, which he called threshold or liminal moments. Old boundaries break down and new ones have not yet emerged. People are capable of different, stronger bonds. They see each other not in their social roles, but as human beings. These relationships he called communitas. New ideas are born in the crucible of this constructive disorder.
In that May environment, I was an outsider, searching for what was most authentic to me. In 1968, the most important things in my life were far removed from my academic striving at Harvard. The market. Flowers. A friend showed me how to cook a full meal, from appetizers to salad and dessert courses in my room with camping gas. Another let me take a bath in her apartment once a week.
As I mourned my mother, I began to learn the pleasure of my own company. I learned too, that only if you are able to do that can you really listen to others rather than turning what they are saying into what you need to hear. It’s in solitude that the capacity for empathy is born. Working as a maid in exchange for rent, I made only one call home, a desperate communication with my grandmother to ask how to clean windows if there was no Windex. My grandmother knew: You clean windows with ammonia and newspapers. I remember the fear of not knowing this, the fear that I would lose my room. I never had that kind of fear again but having had it helped me understand those for whom such anxiety is a regular part of life. Dépaysement was the first chapter in my empathy diaries.
I used the strategy of stepping back to make sense of Harvard in the 1960s, where women could attend classes but were not on the tenured faculty, could not use the undergraduate library, or qualify for Harvard scholarship programs for study and travel after graduation.
I used it in my career at MIT when the university tried to deny me tenure, an inconvenient woman who critiqued technology. MIT fired me before they rehired me. No one really wants an in-house critic, no matter how clever. Distance helped me keep my cool.
I used dépaysement when, as a humanist in a land of engineers, I asked unpopular questions about the emotional effects of digital technology. And then, my work came full circle: The French experience of liminality accompanied by intimate connection helped me interpret the rise of social media with its new forms of distancing and intimacy.
Decountrifying has lit my personal and professional path. Now I think it offers a strategy for American renewal.
Coming out of the pandemic, we can ask: Will this end as it began? A close approximation of the old normal with greater awareness of how to behave under strict public health guidelines. Or can we embrace our dislocation and think in larger terms, internalizing the insights and inspirations of last year?
We are called to dépaysement as an act of citizenship and healing. This will take work. We must hear, really hear, people who fear for their lives in our country. We can go beyond hopes and prayers and well wishes for those cast aside to seeing ourselves in their place and feeling at one with them. Our collective failure to conduct our nation’s affairs in a reflective, deliberate way helped get us to this point of crisis. And now we must find our way out.
Empathy is a first step. It doesn’t begin with “I know how you feel.” But with the humility to say that you don’t know how another feels. So, it begins with an offer to listen: “Tell me how you feel.” Empathy is an offer of accompaniment and commitment. It offers hope to the person who is being heard and it enlarges the person who offers it. When you realize how much you have to learn about someone else, you understand how much you don’t know about yourself.
To be empathic is to embrace and own your own complexity and limitations. The gift of our quarantine was time to feel othered—to America and to ourselves. Because once you are a stranger to what is most familiar to you, you can take in the complexity of the world. The weight of seeing things as binary choices falls away. The striking thing about living through dramatic change is you are right there when something that once seemed odd begins to seem natural. The trick is to remember why it once seemed odd because that might be a reason worth remembering.
We’ve seen the limits of lives on the screen. We had time to observe ourselves because we were as though experimental subjects. We can both admire the efficiencies of remote work, sometimes, and crave the full embrace of the human. We both used technology with greater invention, and we missed each other more. We are in a position to be wary of pundits who try to sell us on “the end of the office” or the “solution” of online education. To figure out what really works, you need to get into the fine details. We’re in position to choose the mix of virtual and face-to-face encounters for different jobs. And to demand that when we do a job, our technology is not spying on us or our children.
During the year of COVID, we lived echoes of the pandemic of 1918, and for me, the rise of fascism in 1938, and the protests of 1968. I came to a new state of mind because I could see my country anew. And although our country was at war with itself, I felt a deeper connection with other people who were also seeing anew. On the Zoom screens of the pandemic, I found the exhilaration of new connections. I saw the irony of Zoom communitas, but there it was. Communication was stilted but the agenda was urgent.
Not all Americans prayed that they would be spared eviction or find a food bank; not all Americans feared for their jobs. But even the most privileged were blocked by frail bodies: they could not visit parents and grandparents and children and grandchildren; they could not be with loved ones when they were sick or died. We were riven by political divides, but over time, these may come to seem less important as we move to the other side of our collective traumas. Our time out of time may be a passage to something new.
We are in a better position to see our country as from the outside. It’s hard, of course, because we are wrapped in an American myth. It involves words like “melting pot” and images of new citizens pledging allegiance for the first time and being welcomed into an American family. It doesn’t include images of segregated army units, or of men and women shot for walking, jogging, driving, or waiting for fast food. It doesn’t include images of riots at the Capitol. You have to step out of the Fourth of July Parade to see that.
Dépaysement was my life’s opportunity. And perhaps it is now for our country – a path of citizenship and healing. America’s challenge is to build a congregation of the committed to “force the Spring,” as Maya Angelou said in her Inaugural poem, so we don’t squander but capitalize on the moment before us – liminal, terrifying, unsafe, trembling with possibility.