From isolation to intimacy

In this day and age, it is difficult not to get wrapped up in fear. COVID-19 has built up a global climate of fear to which no one is immune. The world was not ready for the pandemic, the scale of which not seen since the Spanish flu of 1918.


Fear thrusts people (and nations) into survival mode. People practice self-quarantine and social distancing. Nations close their border to all non-citizens. All these measures are calculated and necessary at this time to slow down the disease.

Henri Nouwen, the late Catholic priest and author, writes in his class work, Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity, and Ecstasy in Christian Perspective, that people or things which make us fearful put questions in our mind, and through questions have power and control over us.

A trending question on Google at the time of writing is: ‘Is it safe to eat takeout during COVID-19?’ A very down-to-earth question today. Not everyone shares the same culinary concern, but the following chain of thoughts should surprise no one.

What if I contract coronavirus?’ ‘What if I contract coronavirus and get laid off from my job?’

What if _____, a close family member, also contracts coronavirus?’ ‘What if that family member also gets laid off from their job?’

A fear of the ‘what-ifs’ can lead to me-first, self-preservation measures which alienate us further from our community. People may buy more than their usual quantity of daily items—to minimize the number of trips to stores. That is understandable, sustainable, and positive in the practice of social distancing. But clearing up whole shelves of supplies, be it face masks, hand sanitimizers, toilet paper … that is irrational, to say the least.


Henri Nouwen, in his book Lifesigns, points out 3 signs that we can look out for and follow to move from ‘the house of fear’ to ‘the house of love’. Intimacy. Fecundity. Ecstasy.

How can anyone feel intimate in self-isolation mode?

If you look for signs of intimacy in the right place, I believe you will find them. Not in empty shopping malls. Not in restaurants, if home delivery is the only way. Not in work places, if people are mostly working at home.

I witness intimacy through small, surprising acts of kindess and solidarity among people, even strangers.

Local craft beer

Ding-dong. The doorbell rang, and like all ‘Knock, Drop, Go’ deliveries these days, the delivery person was long gone when I opened the door. On my doorstep was a single 6-pack of beer of an unknown brand. This craft beer from a local independent brewery was actually ordered online by my daughter. It was not cheap—$6 per bottle plus a delivery fee. My survival (and paternal) instinct immediately took over, leaving me wondering, secretly, the wisdom of consuming $6, home-delivered, craft beer when there was a recession looming.

Little did I know that my daughter wanted to support a local business with a niche product she liked, and the $5 delivery fee went to support laid-off workers. She taught me a good way of showing solidarity with people and businesses in the community.

Online Zumba

My wife Jennifer is a Zumba instructor and she teaches regularly in community centers, church halls, retirement homes, and seniors’ care homes. One by one, these venues, rightly for the risk of contamination, canceled all on-site extracurricular activities, including Zumba classes.

To these people, weekly Zumba classes are social as well as physical exercising functions. Their mental and physical health can be collateral damages in the fight against COVID-19.

Thanks to the latest innovations in videoconferencing technology, Jennifer was able to offer online Zumba classes. Finding the right surface to exercise on at home, getting the computer and audio video equipments ready, upgrading insurance coverages, acquiring the necessary music licenses were all hurdles she had to overcome.

At the end, all her effort was well worth it. The response to the online classes had been tremendous. The participants felt re-connected to a community, and through it expressed solidarity with one another.

All it took was a catalyst in the form of the instructor’s initiative, and an innovative enabling technology.

Dental emergency

I was awakened by a terrible toothache last Friday night. The pain got worse, and I woke up my wife to tell her. Husbands, you know that if you have to wake up your wife in the middle of the night, the pain must be pretty bad.

Next morning, I called the dentist office … on a Saturday in the middle of a pandemic. I had a slight suspicion that the office would not be open.

The voice recording confirmed it. In fact, the office had been shut down for about 2 weeks.

I was desperate enough to use the emergency contact email from the voice recording. It was my only lifeline.

I was ecstatic when I saw a timely reply, from my dentist no less, not someone from a centralized monitoring service. To help with the diagnosis, they asked me to email pictures of the affected area.

From the pictures, they thought a root canal procedure might be necessary which entailed a visit to the office. I was deeply grateful when they scheduled an appointment for the same day, in fact, an hour later.

I learned later that I was the first patient admitted on an emergency basis since the shutdown. All the equipment had to be restarted and for this visit.

It turned out that the pictures I took suffered from poor lighting and the shadow cast led them to the wrong root cause for my pain. Physical examination at the office concluded that the pain was due to gum infection, and no root canal was needed. This was clearly a better outcome, despite it came after the dentist had spent considerable effort to prepare for a root canal surgery prior to my arrival.

I was moved deeply by the professionalism and the compassion shown by my dentist … how they ‘risk it all’ to make better the live of someone whom they normally only meet twice a year.

Kudos to my dentist, and by extension, to all medical workers for their compassionate response in the face of COVID-19 .


We are ordinary people, and yet, by reaching out just a little, we can make a positive difference to another person. The journey from the home of isolation to the home of solidarity begins by taking a small step.

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