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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

A culture killer aiming for our spirit  

A chance for some precious family time.

A chance for some precious family time. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Kuzmichstudio

We humans are a communal bunch.

We enjoy each other, mostly. Cheering together in a stadium or arena, for sure. Jammed on a train or subway, perhaps less so. But for the most part, joining with others of our species is a pleasurable and essential part of our experience.

So what a shock it has been  to see that aspect of our lives stripped away with astonishing speed in the face of the expanding coronavirus crisis. What's gone is monumental.

March Madness, the NBA, the NHL, Major League Baseball and a raft of other major sporting events were canceled or suspended. Broadway is dark, as is the Metropolitan Opera. Concerts were postponed. Museums are closed. Disneyland and Disney World are shut down. New York City's St. Patrick's Day parade is grounded. Travel is discouraged. School reunions are scrapped. Clubs, restaurants, movie theaters and gyms are suddenly not so inviting. 

Diversions from real life, done in by real life.

 And our children are taking an additional hit, as thousands of them almost certainly will also be dealing with shuttered school doors.

So now we have to modify our habits, alter our routines. That means physical changes — where we go, what we do, with and without whom, and when. That's the easier part. That's something we can rationalize to ourselves as being for the best, because it is.

Slowing the spread of this disease is critical. Keeping a distance between ourselves so as not to facilitate more infections will help. Many of us are willing to put the common good before our individual interests, especially in emergencies; that's part of the pact that keeps our democracy afloat. The essence of that deal was reflected last week in the eerily quiet streets of Rome, where one pizzeria shuttered by the Italian government's ban on most facets of daily life hung a sign that declared, "Out of respect, out of seriousness, out of a sense of the collective."

So we'll do what we have to do here, too. The mental adjustment will be harder. Change as profound and sweeping as this can lead to psychological dislocation. Forced isolation is never easy. And loneliness, medically speaking, also is hazardous to our health. It's every bit as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to researchers, who say that our nation already has an epidemic of loneliness.

So how will we nourish our souls now? How will we find some substitute for that sense of communion with our fellow humans?

Those of us who live with family are lucky. Time spent meaningfully with them will be precious. A handshake on the outside might be verboten; a hug on the inside will soothe.

But there are plenty of things all of us can do to fill the empty nights and weekends before us, and enrich ourselves along the way.

Take a walk. Stroll a windswept beach. Bury yourself in a book. Pick up a puzzle, crossword or jigsaw. Explore a trail. Rediscover nature. Go for a jog. Go on a bike ride. Don't bury yourself further in social media. Get creative in the way you always promised yourself you would when you had more time: Paint that picture, bake some cookies, pick up an old instrument or learn a new one, build that bookcase, assemble that photo album, plant that new garden, research the family tree.

There are plenty of ways to find sustenance in times like this. We're limited only by our imagination and our will.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.