Bruce Wittmaier

Bruce Wittmaier, op-ed columnist

We have a big challenge in front of us. “We” means every one of us. With very few exceptions, “we” includes all those on the face of this Earth. Pandemics have that kind of effect on us.

We want to retreat to our living places and slam the door shut, emerging only when the threat is past. It also helps to control the pandemic when those infected do not pass the problem along. We are safe in our den, but we are also trapped in it.

Trapped is the part we do not like.

Research shows over and over that people do not want to face difficulties alone. Take, for example, the great Northeast power blackout in 1965. It was early evening when the lights, and everything else not connected to a generator, went out. People leaving work were trapped in elevators. A crowded elevator was one kind of problem, but people trapped alone had it worse. Psychology researchers interviewing people trapped in elevators found that those trapped alone were more ill at ease than those trapped with others.

The presence of others is, at least, somewhat comforting. Having others “in the same boat” makes it a little easier. Now, in many ways, we are trapped in small boats but part of the same flotilla.

The best way to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease caused by it, is stay away from other people. The challenge is to keep physically distant but psychologically close. Once upon a time, letters sent by snail mail were the popular choice, though they could take a long time to get to the recipient.

Letters to military service members, especially on the front lines, have always been important. The knowledge that people care about you, are thinking of you, are praying for you, has great power in maintaining resolve to keep on.

During the Korean War, many captured U.S. soldiers were subjected to brainwashing techniques. One of the strategies was to withhold any positive and supportive mail. Divorce papers, however, were delivered. Bills from collection agencies got through. Letters complaining about things at home were received. The morale of the captives was affected, and the death rate in those prisoner-of-war camps was high, and many prisoners died of no apparent disease. This condition was called “give-it-up-itis.” Isolation is destructive.

To be an effective society, we need to be a supportive society. Our isolation during the coronavirus crisis may help sensitize us to another social issue — the impact of loneliness. As a health risk, loneliness rivals obesity and smoking. An AARP survey found that 1 in 3 U.S. adults 45 and older are lonely. This coronavirus crisis may alert us to the ongoing problems of isolation in our society.

We now have many ways to keep in touch, and this is an ideal time to use them. The more connected we feel, the easier it is to keep going. We should use emails and text messages, phone calls and Facetime and Skype — whatever is available — to contact those who are alone and lonely.

In times of crisis and danger, many people turn to faith. It’s long been said that “there are no atheists in foxholes.” The truth of this sentiment continues to resonate. There are foxholes in peacetime, too.

The need for social distancing to retard spreading the novel coronavirus led many houses of faith to shut their doors (though in some cases they added or increased their online presence). But there is not just the “Church” — organized religion — there is also the “church.” The church is the wider community of believers, a collection of people that far transcends any building or denomination or faith group. While these people may not be physically close, they are a great, worldwide community of faith that includes all who believe and in which we all can find strength.

We may be isolated, but we are not alone. We are connected.

This newspaper is asking readers to submit letters to the editor about acts of kindness they witness during this crisis. This is a really good idea, and it might just start a helpful trend. There is plenty of research that demonstrates that both doer and recipient benefit from such acts.

Sometimes, in the pressure of a crisis, we attack rather than cooperate. Philadelphia was hit especially hard by the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. A young resident of the city noted: “Neighbors weren’t helping neighbors. No one was taking any chances. People became selfish. We lost our spirit of charity. Fear just withered the hearts of people.”

This can happen to us if we are not careful, and it will make things much worse.

Spring is upon us. Easter is on the way. Seasons of hope in a time of trouble.

Bruce Wittmaier, Ph.D., is a retired clinical psychologist, a sometime writer and speaker, and a resident of Lancaster city.