One of the most popular short stories of the twentieth century was “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.” The tale describes a person and time with a number of similarities to those of us living through today’s Covid-19 pandemic. The lesson we might draw from our experience, however, is very different from that of the long-distance runner.
Published in 1959, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” is the story of a young man who turns to running as a way of escaping a life teetering on the brink of petty crime and hardship. Much to his surprise, he discovers a knack for the sport and quickly becomes a local star. He gets in trouble with the law, however, and is confined to a juvenile detention center. The bosses at the center want to score some PR points against a nearby upper class prep school so they force him to enter a race in which that school will be competing He leads all the other runners throughout the contest – he is clearly the best person on the course – but then stops just feet short of the finish line and lets everyone else pass him. It is an unexpected, even shocking gesture of defiance – a young man whom society has written off demonstrating that, whatever his circumstances, he is still his own person.
Those of us who have become long running zoomers would seem to be facing a situation that in some respects at least, is eerily similar. We are seldom if ever alone on Zoom, but there is a kind of loneliness to the experience. Many of us feel as if Covid-19 has confined us to a bedroom or a den or a corner of the dining room at home. It’s certainly not a detention center, but it is clearly limiting our degrees of freedom. In addition, given the almost nonstop use of Zoom for team, project, sales, training, planning and a host of other meetings, we’ve definitely acquired a knack for using the technology. And, though it’s not the case for everyone, some of us at least find the time we spend there a welcome respite from home schooling with math we don’t remember and household chores we’d just as soon ignore.
But, that’s where the similarities end.
What Is Our Virtual Marathon Doing For Us?
We can, of course, switch meeting technology, but we can’t stop meeting online. We can’t simply check out of the process as a way of demonstrating our free spirit and independence. Whatever our level of Zoom fatigue, we have to keep running virtually. So, what lesson can we draw from our experience? The runner in the short story comes to see his loneliness as liberating. What’s our loneliness on a meeting platform doing for us?
Ironically, our separation from others is affirming the importance of connecting in-person. No matter how irritated we used to get at seemingly endless meetings in the conference room, not matter how irksome it used to be to listen to a colleague pontificate about this or that issue of the day at the coffee station, no matter how deadly dull it was to sit through all hands meetings with the boss, most of us now look back fondly on those human-to-human interactions.
We are a social species, and that’s one attribute technology cannot learn or simulate. We used to think it could facilitate what Maslow called our need for belonging – witness “social” media sites, for example – but our long running experience on Zoom has proven that to be an illusion. Wikipedia opines that “Social organisms, including humans, live collectively in interacting populations.” Technology can promote our interactions, but it cannot enable, empower or even encourage us to live collectively. That’s something only we humans can do in-person.
So, while we aren’t able to stop short of the finish line as the long-distance runner did, we can stop short of our headlong rush into remote working, distance learning and virtual meetings. When Covid is finally wrestled into submission, let’s resolve to see and celebrate the enrichment of being in the same place with other human beings. There will always be a place for virtual interactions, but they will never, ever replace people running together.
Food for Thought,
Peter Weddle is the author or editor of over two dozen books and a former columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He is also the founder and CEO of TAtech: The Association for Talent Acquisition Solutions. You can check out his latest books on Amazon or in the TAtech Bookstore.