Opinion: Reach out and (don’t) touch someone

Writer Celia Willis writes about how communities can maintain ties during this pandemic that’s shattered our routines and rituals. In this photo, graduating seniors Megan Hollister (left) and Caitlyn Bradley jump while setting their cell phones on the grass and filming a video of themselves at Hugh Buchanan Field as it is lit up to symbolize the class of 2020 as a light to the community at Parkview High School on Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Lilburn. Every weeknight at 8:20 pm, Athletic Director Nick East turns on the scoreboard and stadium lights for 20 minutes and 20 seconds to honor the class of 2020. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Writer Celia Willis writes about how communities can maintain ties during this pandemic that’s shattered our routines and rituals. In this photo, graduating seniors Megan Hollister (left) and Caitlyn Bradley jump while setting their cell phones on the grass and filming a video of themselves at Hugh Buchanan Field as it is lit up to symbolize the class of 2020 as a light to the community at Parkview High School on Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Lilburn. Every weeknight at 8:20 pm, Athletic Director Nick East turns on the scoreboard and stadium lights for 20 minutes and 20 seconds to honor the class of 2020. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Within hours of the 9/11 attacks, the queue at Red Cross blood donation centers wrapped around the block, long-estranged family members headed home for supper, and America’s churches were filled to overflowing. Our instinct, when threatened, is to seek each’s company.

To lend a hand. To pat a back. To cry on a shoulder.

That makes the COVID-19 pandemic particularly disturbing. Our vibrant, rich, lively society has endured crises before, but rarely have we been instructed by our leaders to so blatantly defy our reflex to collect, to huddle, to touch.

Indeed, doing what comes naturally – hug it out – would only make things worse.

Denied that instinctual response, we just don’t know what to do. Even as industry is shifting to a war footing (Tesla is committing to making ventilators; Louis Vuitton is pumping hand sanitizer out of perfume factories), individuals are left few alternatives.

We’ll wash our hands, but we hate wringing them. What war, after all, was ever won by sheltering in place?

That leaves responsible, concerned citizens with a uniquely ironic challenge: How do we cultivate a supportive community so essential to our well-being when the tactile medium for its maintenance – touch – is exactly what could destroy it?

Well, creative, community-minded folks are finding a way:

In Gainesville, school bus drivers are delivering meals to students of shuttered schools who normally receive free and reduced-price lunches.

Delta Air Lines boasts one of the growing number of CEOs foregoing their salaries as an acknowledgement of the resulting economic downturn.

Atlanta’s Giving Kitchen is building a safety net for food service workers left unemployed by restaurant closures (thank you, Matt Ryan).

Mental health professionals long ago established that one of the best ways to maintain our emotional balance in times of stress is to help other people.

So, whether born of a selfish desire to stay sane or a magnanimous impulse to ease the burden of neighbors, it pays to move beyond your own worries and act. How might individuals facilitate a helpful community spirit in this touchy, touchless time?

Buy some gift cards at your favorite nail salon, barber shop or eatery to help small businesses survive the dip. Deliver canned goods to the doorstep of an elderly neighbor. Toss a few bucks into the Go Fund Me accounts of families suffering far more dire straits than your own.

Volunteer to pack groceries with Neighbors in Need, Open Hand, Community Food Bank or any of the myriad Atlanta charities overwhelmed with requests for assistance.

Communities don’t just happen. They require planning, action and deliberate decisions to love.

But as our favorite love language falls silent, we’ll find other ways to touch each other.

We have to.

Celia Willis is the CEO of KWI, a consulting and communications firm based in Atlanta. She manages her business and social relationships from an appropriate distance. She is an AJC Community Contributor.