Together Apart: Nurturing Closeness Despite Separation

Six feet apart. Masked. Bubbled. Distanced. Grounded. Halted.

I, like most of us, have spent the past nine months living this way. And yet, so much has happened in my life — graduations, birthdays, anniversaries, births, deaths, a new job — all while being separated. In any other year, there would have been parties and joyful dinners, celebrations of life, and supportive coffee dates. But this year has given us unprecedented challenges, challenges that have tested us greatly because despite having to stay apart, we human beings crave connection.

It may seem strange to say that this year has become a year of connection — of closeness despite the separation — but for me, it has. This year has taught me how necessary it is to reach out and connect despite the separation.

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Dare to connect despite the norms. There are few boundaries beyond the ones we create.

When our family Thanksgiving gathering at my cousin’s house was canceled, we hosted the biggest party ever by putting on a Zoom feast across three continents and five time zones. We saw old relatives we hadn’t heard from in years and met new ones who had just been born. We laughed, cried, and danced. We created new traditions.

When my son’s graduation performance was canceled, the kids each recorded their rendition of “The Best Day of My Life” (how ironic) on their own, which was painstakingly edited into a single track over the summer by a group of parents. Instead of watching the final video separately, we came together for a virtual live screening for what we realized later would be their last gathering as a class before heading out into the wide world of middle school.

When my new team at work felt isolated — some of us brand new to the company, some with long tenures — we gathered with video cameras on and our voices unmuted to share first challenges and then wins. Because there are no triumphs without difficulties, we came together and connected about our authentic struggles. We supported each other and experienced how good it felt to connect through both prosperity and adversity.

After losing nearly an entire department of researchers at my previous company, we banded together closer than ever before through an online group — sharing resources, celebrating highs and lows, through jokes, links, and the occasional live call. We shared breaking industry news and news about our personal lives. While we were disbanded through unfortunate layoffs, our bond feels now closer than ever. We realized that together we are stronger.

And I’m learning more and more about the power of connection every day. Yesterday, on a sunny winter afternoon, I was on a walk with my children and parents. For the past eleven years, we’ve walked the same path, passing the incredible front yard of an artist who makes monster-size bunny rabbit sculptures (yes, really). Yesterday, my son decided to do something that none of us thought possible: he jumped into their yard and hugged the giant bunny. He beckoned for us all to join him, but of course, we couldn’t. Instead, we took a picture of all of us (masks on, pretending to put our arms around each other), marking the moment when he dared to connect despite the norms, and we all connected in the one way we had available to us. At least for now.

It is easy to lose touch with friends, family, and colleagues due to circumstances beyond our control, but through the unprecedented challenges the pandemic has thrown us, I’ve learned how easy it can be to reach out and connect despite separation. All it takes is recognition of our human need for connection and a desire to create closeness.

With this in mind, I encourage you to find ways to find togetherness while being apart. Ask yourself who is your team, be it at work or in the community, and how can you nurture these connections? Are there people you’ve lost touch with that you want in your life? Ask yourself why you’ve become disconnected and then reach out. Rejoin a group you left. Initiate a live and honest conversation one-on-one. Maybe get in touch with an estranged friend, a distant relative, a long-lost coworker. Now is the time to reconnect and find the togetherness despite the distance.

While 2020 has been a superlative year in all ways, let’s commit to remaining connected while separated. Even as we return to a brave new world in the coming year, know that there are few boundaries and limits beyond the ones we create. Let’s stay together while apart so that when we are able to gather again, we’ll have become closer despite the distance.

About the author

Etienne Fang is a human-centered research and strategy leader who is passionate about people and the power of their stories to create new value. She is a principal researcher at Amazon, has led research teams at Uber, founded consumer strategy practices at Method Products and VF Corporation, and led innovation design at The Clorox Company. Etienne is the founder of Redefining Having It All, a non-profit organization that celebrates the beautiful diversity of women’s ambition globally through storytelling and in support of female empowerment through education. Etienne lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two sons.

I am a human-centered research strategist who thrives at the intersection of insights and storytelling.

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