Most people, I expect, can feel the buzz around campus. Months after the first vaccines rolled out, the fog of COVID is finally lifting before the promise of a somewhat normal year. I moved into my apartment a few days ago and was shocked by what seemed like a universal willingness to socialize. Freshmen mingle on the Main Green, meeting new friends and jabbering with excitement visible on their unmasked smiles. I see whole families helping move students back onto campus and a packed Blue Room almost resembling what it was two falls ago. Brown is nearly back to normal and the thirst for social interaction is palpable.
A year and a half ago, right as we were sent home from campus, I remember watching newsreels flip through the same stories and spew the same speculative jargon. Reporters would belch about the momentary sacrifice of a two-week lockdown or the expected V-shaped recovery that was bound to begin any day. Underlying the media narrative was a sense that the pandemic was a blessing in disguise: a painful episode that would bind the country in common experience, make us crave the type of intimacy social media can’t provide and push us into a social renaissance of sorts. But months later, these ideas, which painted the pandemic as a transitory inconvenience, became failed predictions and came to represent the depressing monotony of the news cycle. At the time, I filed this theory of a social renaissance into the rubbish heap of other lofty, ratings-driven predictions; I completely forgot about it — that is, until this past week.
The enthusiasm with which the student body jumped back into life on campus has given credence to this prediction. More than ever, it seems people are willing to try new things, meet new people and dedicate more time to the aspects of life we took for granted before the pandemic: We face a unique opportunity to be the architects of a new milieu. For many, including myself, the pandemic offered a brief reflection on what’s important in life, and frankly, what makes people happy. Isolation made me appreciate even the most mundane of physical interactions. Watching lectures from bed made me crave walking to class each morning, and eating prepackaged meals alone in my dorm made me miss the cacophonous lunchtime rush at the Ratty.
That said, I’m hesitant that our social reawakening will fulfill our own expectations if we allow social media to isolate us the way the pandemic separated us physically. Our generation’s social skills are inextricably tied to a dependence on social media. But getting caught up in this dopamine fix might keep us from pushing through the normal early awkwardness of a new friendship, and leave us feeling lonely despite the newly unmasked and eager faces around us.
If we can put down our phones, we may find ourselves more receptive to the joys of life having experienced the pain prompted by the pandemic, and better able to reimagine what our social life could look like. A recent psychological study measured perceived lifetime happiness against the amount of adversity an individual had experienced. Those who experienced either overwhelming or minimal amounts of adversity reported lower levels of happiness, while those who had experienced a moderate amount tended to be happier. In short, exposure to some amount of pain and struggle allowed individuals to better appreciate the joys of life.
Now, more than ever, the pandemic feels less dire. At last, we are emerging — many of us vaccinated — from our dark, desolate dorm rooms with a thirst for real connection. We’ve reached a communal low and now maybe we can appreciate a new high. I’m not a foolish optimist. The pandemic was terrible and did far more harm than good, but the silver lining might be a push toward more meaningful interactions and a thirst for social exploration. From everything I’ve seen in my first days back at Brown, we seem to be reaping the reward. So, here’s to hopes of an almost ordinary school year and, if we’re lucky, some extra ordinary and responsible social development.
Will Fleischmann ’22 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.