Gratitude: an antidote to emotional distancing

Amy Hirshberg Lederman

Since March of this year, we have been forced to reassess and restructure how we think about and interact with the world. From empty calendars and stockpiled closets to work, family, and social lives that resemble nothing we have ever known, we bear witness to living in a COVID-19 world.

For most of us, the rapid and intense paradigm shift from frenetic socialization to quarantining and isolating has been difficult and stressful. To protect ourselves, our families, and our communities from the devastation that the virus can cause, we have been strongly urged, even required in some states, to “socially distance” — to stay at home as much as possible and to mask up and stay 6 to 10 feet apart while outdoors.

I am grateful for the communities, local officials, and governors who have provided leadership and for the continuing,  heroic medical efforts that guide us through this time of great uncertainty. But I am also saddened to see the emotional fallout from what constitutes our “best practices” to minimize the risk of getting COVID-19.

Social distancing, while mandated and necessary, is a double-edged sword. True, it can help us stay safe and healthy, but it can also make us feel unsafe with others and cause unhealthy emotional responses.

I know this firsthand as it recently happened to me at the grocery store during one of their “seniors only” hours. Usually one to smile and chat with the checkout person, I cast my eyes downward, limiting not only contact but conversation. Then I swiftly dodged the two other people in line and raced to the finish line — the designated Exit Only sign.

I sat in my car in the parking lot, emotionally wiped from the experience. “What is happening to me?”

I’m left to wonder if there is a way to work through this without compromising physical and emotional health — for me and for others.

Perhaps it’s overly simplistic but I think the answer may lie in a single word: gratitude. Cultivating and particularly expressing gratitude may be a game changer in the arena of social distancing.

In Hebrew, the term for gratitude is hakarat ha tov, which translates to “feeling thankful for another person’s act of kindness.” So, consider this: Wearing a mask in public and physically distancing from others indicates that people CARE. They care about me, about you, about not transmitting what they may have more than they care about their physical discomfort in wearing a mask — especially in Arizona where summer temperatures are often well above 100 degrees!

I feel grateful for this kindness, for the caring others show me.  My resolve from now on is to thank people, as much and as often as possible, for masking, for honoring physical distancing, and for doing the hard work of living in community and acting responsibly.  We may not be able to see each other’s smile behind a mask, but a grateful word and smiling eyes will more than do the trick.

Many highly regarded doctors, psychologists, and health organizations also have promoted replacing the term “social distancing” with “physical distancing” to describe our responsibility to one another during the pandemic. While the actual recommendations remain the same, a change in messaging may do much to increase our ability to sustain a healthier emotional attitude.

We are all aware that we cannot forgo human contact indefinitely; increasing and fostering social connectivity and interdependence in a healthy and safe manner is necessary for the long term. Outdoor visits should be encouraged; appropriately distanced dining, hiking, biking, walking, yoga, and swimming are still possible. Although many of us may already feel “Zoomed out,” there is something truly astonishing in our ability to now gather together — as a family, group, book club, or professional group and share time and ideas, rather than space, with one another.

In acknowledging feelings of gratitude, we do ourselves a great service. We stop, if only for a moment, and let go of the feelings of loss, anger, grief, and frustration that we may be carrying because of COVID-19. And in that moment of feeling thankful, we affirm what is good in life.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker, and attorney who lives in Tucson. Visit her website at