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Loneliness and friendship in the age of coronavirus

History is clear: In times of massive hardship and pain, community is at its tightest and happiest. Can a pandemic actually close the distance between us?

Throughout history, our lowest moments have somehow brought us the highest.
Throughout history, our lowest moments have somehow brought us the highest.Ryan Huddle

I’ll begin this part of the story with the last Odd Wednesday, which just so happened to fall at the exact moment when we finally accepted that life as we knew was ending and the Giant Pause was about to begin.

There were six of us sitting around a campfire in my buddy’s backyard on Cape Ann. A couple of the fellas couldn’t make it, but this crew represented most of the guys I had roped into joining my grand experiment, one I’d arrived at after a long journey involving extensive research, self-reflection, and consultation with experts around the world.

I had started a fraternity for middle-aged guys. And by fraternity, I mean a group of dads who met on the odd-numbered Wednesday nights and drank beer, usually round a fire but sometimes in a barn loft. If we were feeling especially wild, we shot BB guns.


It was my attempt to engineer a tribe. It was supposed to be the end to my quest. And I don’t think I fully appreciated how much that attempt had failed until that moment, that last Odd Wednesday, when it finally started to succeed.

One of the guys had brought a six-pack of Corona. That was good for a chuckle. But then came the other joke. Mostly a joke. Or maybe it was more of an inquiry, addressed to all of us, when one guy declined to shake the open hand of another. It was done with a smile. It was received with a laugh. But in it was a question, one of many that were cascading toward us, about the new rules of social life.

We sat round the fire for about three hours, and the coronavirus thankfully disappeared from the conversation and we moved on to everything else, to laughter and storytelling and secret-sharing and gossip, those ancient tools of camaraderie.


Around 10 o’clock, things began to feel like they were winding down and one of the guys did something we had resisted all night. He checked his phone. And there was news.

The President of the United States had addressed the nation and announced the first major restrictions of the pandemic, barring travel from most of Europe. And, just as surreal, Tom Hanks, the president of regular guys, had announced he’d contracted the virus.

We said our goodbyes without shaking hands. That felt like something important, and you could almost feel a transition happening, something I knew from my research was vital to any real tribe, something that our little gimmick had been missing.

Social science tells us that we form our strongest bonds when we are going through something together. It is why people tend to form their most meaningful relationships during things like school or sports or military service, which present us with opportunities to experience the magic of feeling necessary to one another.

Such opportunities can be in short supply in modern adulthood. We live independently. We make individualized choices. Rarely must we demonstrate a commitment to the common good. Yet it is inside of us. It is hardwired. It is why pro-social acts, as they are known, are rewarded with the release of feel-good hormones inside the body.

But even in the modern world, there is a proven way to get there. An opportunity that, when it presents itself, unleashes that desire like nothing else can, releasing the strongest societal glue we have.


And I hoped like hell that I’d never see it happen.


We live independently. We make individualized choices. Rarely must we demonstrate a commitment to the common good. Yet it is inside of us. It is hardwired.
We live independently. We make individualized choices. Rarely must we demonstrate a commitment to the common good. Yet it is inside of us. It is hardwired.Ryan Huddle

Three years ago, I answered a call to adventure when an editor lured my ego into his office with the promise that he had a story I’d be “perfect for.” That assignment turned out to be writing about how middle-aged men have no friends, and the dire mental and physical health consequences of that problem.

“I’ll think about it,” I told the editor, stalling for time to come up with an excuse to get out of it. None came, for it did not take long for me to go from offended to acceptance. It pains me to agree with an editor, but this one was correct. I was absolutely perfect for the story. Not because I was special, but because I was painfully typical. My life revolved around work and family and grocery lists. Friends were no longer a part of my daily life. Without really noticing it, I had structured myself into being a loser.

I accepted the stupid assignment and wrote the stupid article and it was such a surprise hit that I accepted a second assignment, in the form of a book contract from Simon & Schuster, to attempt to not only understand how we, the social animal, had fallen into what many experts were calling a “loneliness epidemic,” but also to figure out how to fix it. Or at the very least, figure out how to get my own act together.


My issue was not a lack of friends. I had accumulated some great ones in my life. My issue was that they were not active friendships. And so I spent the beginning of my journey trying to reconnect, to get the bands back together, to actually be BFFs with my BFFs. Which was great, until I realized that was not my problem.

What I was missing was active membership in a tribe.

Seven years ago, I moved my young family to Cape Ann. It’s only an hour up the coast from Boston, where I’d grown up, but it was far enough away that I was starting from scratch, socially. I’d managed to become friends with a few guys, and friends-ish with a few more, but it was all very loose. I decided that had to change.

A man jumped rope in the middle of an empty Frog Pond on the Boston Common as people tried to be more mindful of social distancing guidlines.
A man jumped rope in the middle of an empty Frog Pond on the Boston Common as people tried to be more mindful of social distancing guidlines. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Last May, I sent out cryptic invitations to a handful of guys, asking them to meet me in a barn. I didn’t tell them anything else because I can be annoyingly cinematic. Some I knew fairly well; others hardly at all. The only thing they shared in common was that, in some form or another, I had felt the spark of connection with them.

We started off strong. The ten of them actually clapped for me at the end of my motivational speech that first night, and our first Odd Wednesdays went exactly as I’d envisioned – dudes being dudes, blowing off steam. Then it cooled. Two of the guys just kind of disappeared. It started to feel forced, and there’s nothing worse than trying to force a friendship. Even worse, I knew why. Men bond over activities. It was one of the first things I’d learned from social psychology: Women talk face to face; men talk shoulder to shoulder.


I assumed we’d come to it naturally. But it never happened, and as winter approached we rallied one night in the barn to try to come up with one. It was the first time we’d had a quorum since night one, and we settled on trying to build a pump track for the community. It’s essentially a compact BMX track — one of the guys was way into them — and the thought of building some sweet jumps seemed appropriately juvenile. It had an immediate positive effect on the group, and it was fun to talk about busting out the shovels when the weather came back around.

It was our velvet hook, our Velcro, and it worked well enough that I became convinced it was the odd triumph of my quixotic quest. I had started a middle-aged fraternity, and that fraternity was going to build a dirt bicycle track. It was pretty good. Good enough. But it wasn’t glue.


What’s happening in the world at the moment is an awfulness without precedence. There is death and pain, fear and anxiety, uncertainty and panic. No one knows how bad it will get. And no one knows when it will end.

Mass calamities are awful in every way. Every way except one.

The historical evidence is as inarguable as it is surprising: during periods of mass threat, like war or natural disaster or pandemic, society is at its best and, in some ways, most content. We do not fall apart or disintegrate; instead, we return home, to the tribal animals we spent millions of years evolving into.

For the first time in my lifetime, all of us, every last person, is going through something together — truly together. Like the tribes of our ancestors, the coronavirus requires collective effort. It requires solidarity. It requires that we band together to survive, that we sacrifice for the greater good, that we take responsibility for each other. It provides us with something modern society does not, which is the chance to be truly necessary to each other.

“The earliest and most basic definition of community — of tribe — would be the group of people that you would both help feed and help defend,” Sebastian Junger says in a marvelous little book called “Tribe,” which he wrote, after years as an embedded war correspondent, in an effort to understand why he and so many others seemed to feel better when it was bad. “A society that doesn’t offer its members the chance to act selflessly in these ways isn’t a society in any tribal sense of the word; it’s just a political entity that, lacking enemies, will probably fall apart on its own.”

Junger documents how communities ravaged by war and natural disaster become instinctively more egalitarian. How violent crime and suicide and psychiatric disturbances plummeted in New York City after 9/11. How New Orleans experienced a similar drop in crime after Hurricane Katrina, where most “looters” turned out to be people scavenging for food. How the Londoners who survived 57 straight nights of relentless bombings by the Nazis — an act specifically designed to sow mass hysteria and break them apart — instead lead to a rise in mental health and resolve.

Our story in this crisis is only just beginning. We had some early stumbles. We hoarded toilet paper and sanitizer. The transition from an individualistic society is not instantaneous. But in many ways, we are not just settling in; there are signs we are beginning to thrive. The selflessness is quickly outshining the selfishness. The helpers are winning out. For what is rising to the forefront, quickly, is a desire for togetherness

A Quincy resident finds solitude walking the rain/snow on the shore at Wollaston Beach amid the coronavirus outbreak.
A Quincy resident finds solitude walking the rain/snow on the shore at Wollaston Beach amid the coronavirus outbreak.Matthew J. Lee

But there is a catch. And it’s a big one. Where the standard calamity playbook calls for coming together, in this crisis, we must stay apart. At least physically. And in that void, an unmistakable trend is emerging. With all the social tools of the digital age, we are gravitating to the ones that are the most tribal.

I seem to be in a group text chain with every tribe I’ve ever been a part of. High school friends. College buddies. My brother and my cousins. The Odd Wednesday crew. The guys from my “Survivor” fantasy league. Don’t judge.

And then there is the rise of the group video chat, which is unquestionably the biggest social trend of the crisis. What was once the bane of the remote worker forced to suffer through virtual meetings is now the modern campfire, the place where we wind down the day together. My kids are doing it. My gym is doing it. Everyone, it seems, is doing it. The video calling app Zoom has become so popular among Generation Z that they are now threatening to call themselves Zoomers.

Heck, I’ve even made a few phone calls, and I hate the phone. Just about the only thing I haven’t done is re-activate my Facebook.

Two years ago, I took the advice of a “happiness professor” at Yale and quit all social media. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. And as this crisis has unfolded, I’ve peeked at my wife’s Facebook, where I’ve found confirmation for my belief that social media has a fundamental flaw: we were not all meant to be in the same room. I look at her feed, that modern public stage, and find it littered with nauseating virtue signaling, the endless political blame game, and self-righteous public shamings, particularly from my generation, who can’t stop yelling at the Boomers and the Millennials to get the hell inside. (However right we may be, Gen X is perhaps a bit overzealous from having grown up in school assemblies warning of HIV. We’ve been drilled on virus transmission.)

I’ve come to subscribe to the increasingly popular belief that much of our modern angst and anxiety and disconnect can be traced to our abandonment of the tribal living we were built for. And in the strangest way – digitally, in physical isolation – we’re demonstrating, more clearly than ever, the desire for a return.


(Adobe Stock)
(Adobe Stock)

As I drove home from that last Odd Wednesday, I realized that it was only the second time, since night one, that we’d had a quorum. The first was that night we got together to come up with a purpose. This time it was because we finally had one.

The following day, my children’s school closed. By the weekend, most everything in society had ground to a halt and we entered a holding pattern, this Giant Pause, where we remain.

What happens next? No one knows. The only certainty is that we have some very tough times ahead. But I believe we will get through it with the help of our assembled tribes. It won’t be perfect. We are only human, after all.

It’s been two weeks since that night when I accepted that the world as I knew it was changing forever, and we’ve arrived again at another Odd Wednesday. This time we will be gathering on Zoom. I expect we’ll have no problem reaching a quorum.

Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.