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Remember what it was like to make friends? You met somebody; you found some common ground. You liked their warmth. Or their intelligence. Or their sharp wit. Or …

It’s a lot harder now that we’re never together, isn’t it?

Here in Chicago, some parents are desperate for their kids to go back to school. Isolated at home, they’re having “full-blown meltdowns” and showing signs of depression and anxiety as schools continue remote learning due to the pandemic.

In Las Vegas, schools are about to reopen after an alarming spate of suicides among students who’ve been at home for nearly a year now. School officials say they just can’t continue as-is.

And kids aren’t the only ones feeling the effects of the isolation.

Harvard Medical School’s Human Network Initiative warns that our friend-making muscles are atrophying after months of seeing each other mostly on screens.

I’ve been thinking how great it is, under the circumstances, to have my phone with me all the time, and access to Zoom so I can see friends’ faces. And in a pinch, there’s always Facebook or LinkedIn—I can log in and feel connected.

Initiative co-director Ian Marcus Corbin’s point is that none of those create real connection.

So what does?

Real friendship, Corbin says, requires time and effort to build affection and trust. It relies on patience, generosity, and honesty. And we develop those qualities through practice.

Of course, that practice will include conversations that aren’t comfortable. They’re awkward or difficult, and our impulse is to avoid them instead of making the effort to get better at them.

This is where our current dependence on virtual communication becomes a problem—it’s easy to avoid the awkward or difficult. In a WAPO essay, Corbin says we’re connected now in a bare-minimum sort of way. We settle for being screen-social without doing the hard work required to deeply know and communicate with someone.

One factor is our ability to stick with the friends we have, no matter where they are, instead of stepping out our front door and connecting with the people nearby.

I love talking with my long-time friends in North Carolina and California and Florida; I wouldn’t want to give that up.

Corbin points out that kind of longtime attachment can crowd out the possibility of making new friends in the neighborhood, among people who might not be much like us.

Of course, technology is a piece of the puzzle too.

In-person conversations give us non-verbal information about emotions and trustworthiness, we get a real sense of people that goes beyond the words they say. That’s all missing when we’re talking on Teams.

And deep relationships occasionally require difficult conversations. They’re more difficult when we’re looking each other in the eye. Easier to skate when we default to the phone … and less likely to build deep trust.

I have to be my own friend before I can be yours.

How do we befriend ourselves? Turn off the noise, sit quietly with our thoughts and feelings, really come to terms with who and what we are. Corbin calls it “forging some order out of the riot of thoughts, fears and desires that rages in our heads.”

Can I do all that when I’m reading “The Bulwark,” answering an email, and fooling around on Facebook? Nope. The omni-present screens and speakers “displace the work of self-confrontation.”

E pluribus what?

As Corbin says, our nation’s motto is about making one from many. The many are strangers who don’t have much in common with each other. Can they, or I should say we, really trust each other and build a community or a nation together?

It seems to be getting harder. More people doubt the honesty, even the basic decency and common sense of their fellow-Americans. And they certainly don’t trust the experts in medicine, science, and journalism.

So now what?

There seems to be some optimism at the Human Network Initiative. Vaccines are available and should be more available over the next few months. Those pandemic protocols like masks and physical distancing will likely remain in place for who knows how long. Some experts are predicting mid-to-late summer, some say we’ll wear masks even beyond that.

Sooner or later, though, we’ll be able to click “end meeting” on Zoom. Hang up the phone. Shut down our devices. And be social again. Really social, not faux, on-some-platform social.

As Corbin says, we’ll be freed to “dive into the hard work of looking America in the eye and learning to trust her again, neighbor by co-worker by friend.”

I can’t wait. How about you?

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