“And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory.” (D&C 130:2)
I don’t like the phrase “social distancing.” I much prefer the phrase “physical distancing,” which is in fact more descriptive of the actual constraints required to slow the spread of COVID-19. During this time of massive lockdowns, quarantines, and self-isolation, we do not need social distancing. In fact, we need social contact more than ever. We need social proximity, not social distance.
For humans are innately social beings. We are dependent on others from the moment we take our first breath. As we grow, we are enmeshed in a thick web of relationships: families, friends, neighbors, schools, churches, communities, trades, tribes, clubs, countries, parties, and so forth. These interconnect us in myriad ways and on multiple levels. There is a Maori saying I learned my first year here: He aha te mea nui o te Ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata.” Translation: “What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.”
Life is about relationships. While there is much to be said for and to admire in the solitary genius, full human flourishing and joy occur in relationships. We instinctively feel that there is something deficient in a life lived without connection to or concern for others.
So rather than promote “social distancing” let us nurture and even increase social closeness in this time of physical separation. This is a time to reach out to others who may be feeling isolated. It is a time to exploit the potential of social media to create richer and more nourishing virtual networks than those we had online before the pandemic. It is a time to strengthen the bonds of friendship.
I like the sage advice of the 18th-century writer Dr. Samuel Johnson: “A man, sir, should keep his friendship in a constant repair” (Boswell: Life of Johnson). This is a good time to make sure our friendships are in good repair.
Human friendship is a great gift. As Sir Francis Bacon writes in “Of Friendship” (1612): “Friendship multiplieth joys and divideth griefs.” I am grateful for the friends who have multiplied my joys and divided my sorrows. So let us pay attention to this simple arithmetic of friendship. For without friends, “the world is but a wilderness” (Bacon, “Of Friendship” 1625).
As we come closer together as friends, we embrace a gospel principle—one dear to the Prophet Joseph Smith. Joseph praised and prized friendship. He knew first-hand what it was to be isolated from friends: “Those who have not been enclosed in the walls of prison,” he said, “can have but little idea how sweet the voice of a friend is” (HC 3:293). He rejoiced in faithful friends: “How good and glorious it has seemed unto me, to find pure and holy friends, who are faithful, just, and true”(HC 5:107). And he went to his death in Carthage ruefully remarking, “If my life is of no value to my friends it is of none to myself” (HC 6:549).
The Prophet proclaimed that friendship is a fundamental principle of the Restored gospel. “Friendship,” he declared, “is one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’”—adding this vivid, homely comparison: “Friendship is like Brother Turley in his blacksmith shop welding iron to iron; it unites the human family with its happy influence” (HC 5:517).
Joseph taught as doctrine that the social relationships we enjoy here, which make life so sweet, will extend into the next life, only there to be coupled with glory: “And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory” (D&C 130:2).
Physical distancing? Yes. Social distancing? No! Rather, let us not only maintain but increase “that same sociality” that existed among us before COVID-19, striving to render these relationships even richer and deeper. For they are intended to endure into eternity.