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#367 Space, Distance, and the Human Condition – Some Further COVID-19 Comtemplations

March 29th, 2020

Richard Marker

Reader alert: Those of you who read these essays exclusively for thoughts on philanthropy should note that these contemplations are not primarily about philanthropy [although philanthropy does make an appearance for a few paragraphs in the middle]. #365 and #366 are about philanthropy’s role and responsibilities during and after COVID-19, and if you haven’t seen them, I encourage you to take a look.

“6-foot social distancing” has become the new definition of how physically close we should allow ourselves to be from those other than the very few with whom we are sharing our primary space. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable – the very words “social distancing” seem to imply that we need to disconnect from our social relationships. An easy and oft-used corrective is to say “physical distancing; social connecting”. The point is clear. No one wants to advocate that we sever human relationships in pursuit of maintaining our own and our communities’ health.

Let’s state the obvious at the beginning. Technology has made that idea remarkably possible. Whichever one chooses: zoom, skype, hangouts…. It is now possible to communicate immediately and visually with anyone who has even relatively up to date technology. Indeed, for many, working at home without travel has allowed schedules to become fully packed from morning ‘til evening. We may indeed be physically at a distance but we most assuredly are not socially disconnected. No disaster, crisis, economic downturn, pandemic in the past has afforded us these opportunities. [And my communication with friends and colleagues around the world suggest that others elsewhere are experiencing the same.]

As I said, this is or should be obvious to all. And yet…

It may not be quite so simple. To unpack this, permit a step back.

Most readers know that I have had the distinct privilege of speaking in 40 countries and visiting numerous others. One of the most immediate learnings by anyone who does this professionally is to adapt to local, national, or regional customs about communication styles. Does one shake hands, hug, air-kiss, bow? What should one wear? How is money exchanged? What about business cards? What time does one eat – and is it appropriate or expected or bad form to discuss business over meals? In fact, at one point some years ago, I was traveling so frequently between European countries that I could identify how to wear a scarf and at what pace to walk within a few minutes of arriving in a new place.

One of the most difficult adjustments was “space.” How far does one stand from another? Is touching expected or verboten? In subtle ways, often hard to articulate, this becomes the most nuanced way in which the stranger is distinguished from the native. Long before we had the current “6-foot” metric, guidebooks tried to help business travelers figure this piece out – sometimes even in inches.

Distancing between human beings is a reflection of our relationship to “space.” It says something about ourselves, how we perceive the world around us, what family means – and who is an insider or outsider. Architecture and design are, bottom line, the process of taking those understandings and making them real. [t is, after all, called “real estate”.] All one needs to do is to compare and contrast how different cultures, at the same stages of technology development, choose to design homes and public spaces. Those differences say everything about how those cultures understand and manifest the human condition.

Technology has a good deal to say about that “reality”. Today, we have the option of different and purposeful modeling that might not have been possible or even imaginable in prior ages. We can choose to make a home or office or school or shop look and feel as we wish. Our design choices say a great deal about how we wish to interact with family, friends, co-workers, clients. Some years ago, I had professional reasons to visit both the Bloomberg headquarters and the NY Times headquarters shortly after they were each opened. Both were striking new buildings, yet they conveyed radically different understandings about how people work, what status does or doesn’t mean, what the visitor/outsider should or shouldn’t feel, what is the relationship to the outside physical world to the inside.

The foundation world is no exception: Over the years, I have visited the offices and headquarters of many fellow funders and foundations. They convey radically different perspectives on how they want to be experienced – by board or staff or petitioners/grant seekers. To take just two very visible examples:

The headquarters of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a green building, has a visitor center, and, while impressive, doesn’t overwhelm. The open-design offices and cafeteria don’t convey a sense of hierarchy, and a guest does not experience a sense of a domineering presence. [This is not a comment on how one gets funded or what is funded – only the experience within the building itself.]

Contrast that with another foundation headquarters I once visited [name purposely withheld]. When I entered the building, I assumed that it was a repurposed mansion. Imagine my surprise when I learned that this foundation headquarters was built from the ground up, featuring high end marble and very formal spaces. They were proud that they sometimes opened their meeting rooms to the nonprofit community in that city, but I couldn’t help wondering if the overall message of entering that building is one that reinforces class distinction. The physical space leaves no question who has the power and who is the petitioner.

I don’t want to convey a “holier than thou” message here. When I was CEO of the foundation funded by the Seagram Company, the office was, not surprisingly, in the world-famous Seagram Building on Park Avenue in New York City. My office was in the executive suite behind locked doors and security. Someone coming to meet with me was left with no doubt about the power imbalance endemic to the role. As wonderful as the aesthetics of that space were, and I loved going there every day because of that, it wasn’t lost on me that anyone we considered funding could never truly feel as if they were on equal partner footing.

Our homes are where we have the opportunity to create spaces that convey the meaning of space for us as individuals and families. I have written elsewhere about my belief that life is an art form and therefore why aesthetics matter in designing and furnishing the spaces where we live. One of the values that Mirele and I share is to welcome guests into our home, so we work hard to create both a physical and social welcoming space. We love to host – dinners, receptions, networking, coaching – and the many pages of our filled guest books bear testimony to the many, many hundreds we have welcomed over the quarter century of our marriage.

So, for us, this COVID-19 mandated isolation goes beyond simply our being at home together. It means that we must literally close off a part of who we are and how we love to live our lives. It means that our space is now only a private and carefully protected space, fully comfortable for us, but absent those it is our natural instinct to invite in.

Zoom, skype, hangouts, and other apps go part way to welcoming others into our home and our lives. It helps to fill the gap as we all learn to cope, to adjust our norms, to learn new courtesies, and to keep us engaged. So, while we miss our in-person guests, we are not alone or lonely in our social connection.

Distance, though, raises an entirely different dilemma. We, as do all readers, understand why we maintain the 6-foot distances to reduce, as much as possible, our vulnerability to infection by proximity. The part of this behavior that is different than the kind of social/cultural distancing I referred to at the beginning of this essay is the visible fear in the faces of so many as we pass on a sidewalk or the lobby of our building. We are careful, we think, to honor that special divide, just as they too are careful, but one cannot be blind to the look of fear and trepidation for some if they sense that their space is being encroached upon. And we hear that fear in the voices of some of our family and friends around the world.

That fear is not misplaced if the data and the epidemiologists are correct. But fear is a terrible emotion by which to live. And it is that very fear that we must work very hard to address when we begin to safely emerge from our spatial isolations. That kind of fear, when internalized, has too often in history led to bad behaviors, bad public policies, and bad social outcomes.

We are in a moment of legitimate threat to us all. Fear is one of the legitimate responses. But fear is not an adequate or even appropriate emotion on which to build or rebuild a world. We need empathy and generosity of spirit and resources; we need an affirmation of the legitimacy of all, the rights of all, the dignity of all.

For now, for this moment, it means that we must share our spaces virtually or at safe distances from one another whenever we venture forth. At some point in the future, the challenge we will all have is to not allow fear to become a defining emotion of our interface with others, for our aspirations for the future, and for how we rebuild the world when the time is right.

That will be the true test of our resolve, our values, and our commitment to a world, an entire world, in need of repair and hope!

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