Quarantine Has Canceled Culture

A West LA resident’s hand-written sign that says, “Hello neighbors! Stronger together (but 6 feet apart)” is hung up on a staircase to help encourage neighbors struggling during the pandemic.

During times of crisis, fear, and confusion, human beings turn to their cultural traditions and practices for comfort, support, and stability. While there isn’t one widely accepted definition of “culture,” you can understand that your culture includes everything that makes your life meaningful: your religious traditions, your identity, the people you consider to be family and friends, the activities you fill your days with. And, under lockdown, all of these cultural elements are suddenly missing from our lives during a scary time when we actually need them the most.

In addition to massive job losses and enormous fear attached to this new, sometimes fatal virus, you’re likely also weighed down by the dark cloud of depression because you no longer have the cultural structure that you typically use to relieve anxiety. Consider this: the very nature of being alive causes human beings to feel powerless and confused. Often, bad things will happen to good people while good things happen to bad people. Sometimes, we won’t succeed at a goal that we genuinely worked hard to achieve — life can feel horrifyingly random. All of these elements of life cause human beings to feel confused, overwhelmed, and to seek out something reliable.

We build cultural structures to create a sense of control and comfort. In quarantine, we’ve all been stripped of that essential structure that works like the skeleton of our daily lives and now most of us find ourselves struggling to move forward like a fleshy mass without a bone structure. It’s impossible.

Cultural anthropologists, like myself, spend our careers examining the elaborate and powerful cultural frameworks that people rely on to cope in this world. Religion is a wonderful example of this. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski wrote that human beings rely on religion to give us a sense of comfort and control in our lives. In other words, our religions teach us that good actions will, ultimately, be rewarded either in this life, in the next life, or in the afterlife (depending on your religion). The belief in these divine rewards helps us control our bad behaviors and comforts us a great deal when we don’t immediately see rewards for our good behavior. When we meet with our religious groups, we feel a sense of community that does not exist elsewhere in life, and when we observe our religious holidays, we meaningfully break up the otherwise monotonous year by designating special days where we may indulge, or pause and reflect, travel to loved ones, prioritize family over work, or practice sacred rituals. All of these elements are essential cultural structures that evolved over humanity’s long existence in order to adeptly meet our emotional and psychological needs.

This season, nearly all of the world’s major religions are supposed to observe an enormously special holiday. Consider the psychological impact upon the faithful: It is exceptionally unlucky for humanity that a lockdown-causing pandemic should hit us during Christianity’s sacred Easter celebration that is intended to reflect their community’s commitment and faith in their God’s eternal life. At the same time, Jewish communities were unable to come together in faith and celebration of Passover, a holiday that reminds followers that belief in God will help them overcome plague and hardship. Muslims are preparing to observe Ramadan which is the holy month that requires personal sacrifice intended to remind followers about the hardship of others. During Ramadan, the faithful celebrate community by joyfully breaking the fast together and, now, those communities will try to maintain some very challenging requirements without a delightful celebration at the end. Many Hindus (and other religious groups) in India and around the globe were forced to cancel their incredibly joyous Holi celebrations during which entire communities fill the streets and spread Springtime cheer with colorful chalk powders. All of these important events (and the countless others which I could not list here) serve the essential function of building community and creating a sense of meaning in the lives of the adherents.

Cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote that our cultures are like languages that we use to convey meaning. We use our cultural practices to understand each other and to be understood by one another. For example, many of us observe the cultural tradition of celebrating a person’s birthday. We use this celebration to tell the individual that we are glad that they exist, we give gifts as a symbolic gesture of love and we sing a traditional birthday song that generations upon generations have sung before us. All of these traditions and gestures help us to break up the monotony of the year, to establish who is important to us, and to create and maintain a sense of belonging within a community. When we participate in a birthday celebration, we are using culture as a language to express love, commitment, and community. Throughout quarantine, birthday parties are canceled and so are weddings, funerals, and other events of enormous cultural importance. To many of us, these cancellations feel like a promise — a promise to express and feel love and community — has been broken. This makes our entire sense of reality feel unstable and unreliable. Those guaranteed meaningful moments are an important part of our cultural structure and they have been lost.

But, it’s not just the structures of religion or holiday that we have lost, we’ve lost more. In quarantine, many of us have found that the weekdays and weekends are no longer separate causing the weeks to have absolutely no structure and causing the weekend to no longer have any meaning. Many who are fortunate enough to stay employed no longer have a distinction between “work” and “home” as we set up home offices and start working erratic and unreliable hours. The way that you express your gender may be lost as getting fully dressed, styling hair, or applying makeup doesn’t make total sense when we stay at home. Families staying home may find themselves re-negotiating their personal, long-established, and successful division of labor to differently share childcare or, in some cases, one partner is entirely losing the dignity of having a career for the sake of the other partner whose current work from home situation is more demanding.

To top off all of this struggle, one of the few cultural structures that somehow has managed to survive this pandemic is our political division. Like a cockroach surviving the nuclear blast, our angry and vitriolic political polarization remains the only “normal,” cultural element that persists in many of our daily lives. If you relied on social events, spiritual gatherings, and your work/school structure to distract you from the often-miserable political climate, then losing your cultural structure is bringing the political climate into horrifying focus. Now, when we try to get virus information by turning on a news channel, we are pummeled with the amplified biases of news sources and the dizzying narrative spin of our political leaders. Local and state governments are in conflict with the national government while also competing with one another for supplies. Regular citizens who once tried to keep a balance of political and non-political life are suddenly finding every single element of their life — including the most personal parts of life such as our own health and ability to hug loved ones — politicized. Clifford Geertz wrote that human beings are caught in the webs of culture and this web, the web of political polarization, has ensnared us much deeper than we wanted.

We may be more politically divided than ever, but if you consider the gravity of the situation then you’ll understand that what unifies us right now is loss. We have lost jobs, holidays, playgrounds, and, for many, even a reason to shower regularly. We’ve canceled baby showers and family reunions. The least fortunate among us have lost their health, loved ones, and, horribly, some have lost their very lives. Of course, this type of loss is not entirely unique as war-torn and poverty-stricken communities throughout human history have faced this exact type of loss with great frequency (and will continue to in the future). But, never in our lifetimes has it happened simultaneously to everyone. That is, indeed, monumental and notable.

You’ve likely heard a lot of people telling you that you should try to maintain a routine during this quarantine period. But, because the word “routine” carries a certain sense of obligation and forced productivity with it, I would rephrase this suggestion in the following way: In order to get through the remainder of this pandemic, you, your loved ones, and your neighbors should try to rebuild a unique culture for yourselves. As I mentioned above, without meaningful events, separation of work and home, variation of days and dates, many of us are floating aimlessly without a cultural skeletal structure to support us. I am, in no way, saying that we need to shoehorn our old culture back into place. If a Zoom dinner party sounds too forced to be enjoyable, then do not attend one. Similarly, some people sincerely enjoyed watching Easter mass on livestream while others found the virtual ceremony to be heartbreaking. Culture evolves and changes over time to meet the specific and diverse needs of different types of people. Your new, temporary, pandemic culture must meet your specific needs and won’t function properly if it’s based on anyone else’s specific needs.

When you’re ready to rebuild your culture for yourself and for your immediate community, start by spending a few days identifying your needs. Reflect on the cultural elements that you have lost and ask yourself why they were essential to you. By identifying the gaps, you can identify the areas where you can rebuild. Are you sad to have lost social gatherings? Try to organize Zoom parties or game nights. Do you miss reminders that you loved? Establish a daily exercise to mail one encouraging letter to a friend or family member in order to receive some love back. Do you need to separate the “work” day from the “personal” day? Establish and enjoy a strict time of day where your work and chores must stop whether they are finished or not.

We’ve seen these kinds of new, cultural practices emerge on large- and small-scale movements across the world. Neighbors who are struggling without cultural structure and connection have established a daily “applause” for medical workers that ring through the streets of Paris, New York, and elsewhere. Many communities have changed their cultural expectations of public messaging where people are painting encouraging messages on walls such as, “Stay healthy” or “We’re in this together.” Cheering out your window and creating graffiti were largely culturally forbidden before the pandemic, but culture changes to meet changing needs and now our idea of what is “appropriate” has changed with it. When you start to re-structure your cultural life during this time, open your mind to activities that were not previously “appropriate” because the very core of our society is forever altered. If you can understand that human beings created the culture that we held so dear before the pandemic, then you can give yourself full license to re-create a new culture to meet your new needs.

There are countless ways to restructure your life in order to have your days make more sense to you during this uncharted time. Consider prepping the ingredients for a fancy dinner every morning so that you can look forward to a grand finale meal at the end of your workday. Make a personal rule that you won’t look at any screens until 10 am every day so that you can enjoy the silence of your newly quiet community in the mornings. Plan a themed Zoom birthday party (complete with costumes) for any loved one whose birthday is taking place this month so that you can have something to think about and look forward to. Commit to reading a certain number of pages of a good book every single day so that you can feel productive no matter how the rest of the day pans out. Photograph and share something beautiful from your neighborhood every day so that loved ones can connect to your environment. All of these examples are real, new traditions established by people in my community. We don’t have to be limited to the “normal rules”, we can improvise and design whatever works best for us.

Many who I spoke to expressed a belief that their new traditions will live on after the pandemic has subsided and, I believe, that many of these traditions will be adopted by other people. The most helpful cultural innovations will spread widely. This is precisely how culture evolves. Small groups of innovators offer a new idea to a changing society and, when the most helpful ideas take hold, they spread across place and across generations. Although we’re in a frightening time, we’re all participating in the reformation of society on an epic scale that we could have never expected and we will, inevitably, make a permanent impression on humanity’s future.

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