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Did I purposely declutter my social circle?

The major decluttering of my life over the past nine months wasn’t donating 6-year-old phone chargers or bins of old clothes. It was shrinking my social circle. 

Donated clothes sit in a Salvation Army warehouse on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, before the items are distributed.
Donated clothes sit in a Salvation Army warehouse on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, before the items are distributed.
K. Kendall Mathews/Salvation Army.

I was sitting in the hospital with my wife in early March, watching the news about the coronavirus pandemic beginning to make its way across the United States.

My wife had given birth to our daughter several hours earlier, and we sat wondering what kind of world we had just introduced her to.

Shortly after bringing her home, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a statewide stay-at-home order. We saw it as a time not only to baby-proof our home but also, like many other people, to clear out the clutter. We donated boxes of aged clothing to the Salvation Army, cleared out our miscellaneous drawers and reorganized our storage room.

We weren’t alone. The Salvation Army has seen a “flood of donations” post-pandemic, said Major K. Kendall Mathews, local Salvation Army administrator.

The largest Salvation Army store in the country is on Clybourn Avenue in Lincoln Park, Mathews said. On just one day in mid-December, he said, over 400 people drove up to that store to drop off donations.

“People want to recycle more and more during the pandemic because there is such a great need,” Mathews said. “The old saying is one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. But at the Salvation Army, it’s all treasure.”

But it isn’t until now that I realized the major decluttering of my life over the last nine months wasn’t donating 6-year-old phone chargers or bins of old clothes. It was shrinking my social circle.

Verena Graupmann, associate professor of psychological science at DePaul University, has been researching how social distancing in the United States and Germany affects an individual’s self-esteem and their sense of belonging and meaning.

“Part of this is natural and we are all getting used to the situation. We want to reach out to the people we know and love,” Graupmann said. “In the beginning, we were all reaching out to our people but many of us have been working from home and are on Zoom or phone meetings all day, so it’s overwhelming. I imagine there is a bit of fatigue with virtual calls.”

I can relate. I’ve lost count of my virtual calls over these last nine months. I cringe at the thought of scheduling a Zoom meeting.

But I’ve also spent a great deal of time reporting in the field, so I haven’t totally sequestered myself at home. I’ve been outside, covering terrible stories like a single-father losing his 7-year-old daughter to gun violence, but also on feel-good stories about people helping their community. The bad and good has kept my perspective balanced during this tumultuous year.

I also have always spent a great deal of time on the phone, so am I really experiencing a form of Zoom fatigue? Is that why I have pushed my loved ones away?

“Social distancing is forcing us to be selective of who we spend our time with, and it is almost making us more mindful about your life and who you want in it,” Graupmann said. “It is almost like an antidote for social media. We are usually over-included in people’s lives and we know too many people that it’s hard to keep track of.”

But the people I’ve removed from my social spaces aren’t people I have no real connection with. Instead, these are people I’ve laughed and cried with. People I grew up with. Yet I am just now realizing my part in distancing myself.

Friends and family posted comments minimizing the severity of COVID-19 even as I was writing about lives it had claimed. Blaming people who were out of work, saying it was a lack of grit, instead of faulting elected leaders for failing to create a safety net. Or faux outrage that people were taking to the streets in response to police brutality.

The lack of compassion just doesn’t sit right with me.

“We are at this point where society is more polarized than it has been for decades, or we are more aware of it because we see our uncle’s extreme attitudes on social media that we were never aware of,” Graupmann said. “With social distancing we only see what people post on social media and we don’t have the whole person in front of us.”

Graupmann said before our social confinements, we connected with people beyond our mobile devices. We were able to see their good traits.

I haven’t reached out to those I’ve distanced myself from or decluttered from my life. My love for them remains. Graupmann said if that’s the case, I should pick up a phone and call them.

Maybe it’s time I do.