Proximity and distance

Publish date 18-10-2020

by Gabriella Delpero

Of the three main rules that are repeated to us to exhaustion every day (wash your hands frequently, wear a mask, keep a safe distance), which represents a real challenge of meaning for us men of was it from Covid? Certainly the third, the one that recommends us the so-called "social distancing" as a prevention of contagion. In fact, it undermines the use, meaning and importance of space, with all that it represents in our everyday life and especially in our ability to communicate with others.

Over the centuries we have developed a series of rules and habits of proximity-distance that help us to transmit reciprocal intentions and roles on a social level, as animals do when they occupy a specific place in the herd. A distance that exceeds a few meters is usually the area that distinguishes the relationship between strangers, while to get to touch each other it is necessary to reduce the distance to the length of the arms, up to the intimate area, when the gaze frames the interlocutor only more in the foreground because the distance between the subjects has become minimal. Over time we have learned to enrich each speech with a thousand nuances through gestures, gaze, body posture, tone of voice and various ways of positioning ourselves in the environment: the space between one person and another is never " empty "during a communication, indeed it can be full of messages more than words. Even in language we often refer to the "distance" between human beings as an index of the greater or lesser coldness, hostility or disinterest that can characterize a relationship: "I feel you are distant" or "stay closer to me" we usually say to whom is at heart. In these cases, proximity and distance acquire a strong symbolic value and are charged with emotionality.

Clearly today, with the virus and the need to avoid contagions, we are forced to think of physical proximity between human beings as essentially a danger. But we all also know, for example, how much body contact, warmth and embrace are essential for the survival, safety and development of the newborn, as well as for baby mammals they are essential for learning belonging to the tribe and defense from predators. We are in fact in a situation of disorientation and at times of inner laceration, trapped between apparently irreconcilable opposites: closeness or new distances?

A couple of weeks ago I found myself in the large churchyard where some benches had been placed for those who - no longer finding a place inside the building - had wanted to participate in the celebration at least from there community of the Sunday Eucharist. I was about to approach a bench that was still half-empty, when a person told me in no uncertain terms not to continue further because in his opinion there would not have been a sufficient distance between the faithful: in fact, the usual signs were not placed on the seats to indicate where sit and where not to. To my objection that there was undoubtedly a space - among other things, of course, outdoors! - well over a meter between the various people present, he countered by saying that "the rules are rules" and that the protraction of the pandemic is caused by irresponsible people (like me.).

What to say? If measures of social distancing are necessary for a long time to come, we should not allow ourselves to be conditioned by fear to the point of seeing others only as enemies and threats. And maybe learn to send signals of acceptance and warmth even without a smile (hidden by the mask).

Gabriella Delpero
NP August / September 2020

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