“Let’s get a meal sometime!” This phrase echoed through my brain as I received the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine this week. Now vaccinated, I imagine infinite possibilities — the now CDC-approved opportunity to remove my mask on walks through New Haven, the ability to travel home to my family and the return of social life for my senior year at Yale. I find myself pining for large-scale social gatherings, coffees at my least-loved coffee shops and evenings spent cramming in the buttery. Still, the phrase nags at me, chimed by a dozen voices at once: “Let’s get a meal sometime!”
Yalies love this invitation. In some ways, we mean it. We really do want to get a meal sometime, though it is intentionally unclear when that sometime will come. When we don’t have midterms. When we don’t have finals. After I get this position. After I catch up on sleep. The “sometime” in “Let’s get a meal sometime!” is genuine, but in a high-pressure environment, it is ever unclear when that sometime will come. Given the relative successes of the vaccine rollout, Yale students and administrators alike are optimistic that “sometime” could be this fall.
On March 24, 2020 — less than two weeks after President Trump declared a national emergency on March 13 due to the coronavirus pandemic — world-renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel released a segment in her podcast “Where Should We Begin?” entitled “Couples Under Lockdown.” “Where Should We Begin?” records anonymous, one-time relationship therapy sessions with Perel, gut-wrenching accounts of people’s most intimate struggles. In “Couples Under Lockdown,” Perel emphasizes the strain on relationships created by forced intimacy — sudden close quarters, in which your roommates, family members and partners suddenly become your coworkers, friends and only companions. Perel’s most recent podcast — called “How’s Work?” — uses the same premise, but with coworkers instead of romantic partners. Perel says of “How’s Work?”: “This show is not about the workplace. It’s about the people that work in that place.”
Together, “Where Should We Begin?” and “How’s Work?” enshrine what Perel calls “emotional capitalism,” in which the culture of networking under capitalism — especially popular for professionals and pre-professionals like students at Yale — “requires a societal structure that is not about tight knots, but is about loose threads. That means that we moved from structure to network. In the network, you make loose threads that allow you to enter and leave easily so that you can connect and disconnect.” This is also buoyed by the concept of atomization — or individualization — under capitalism, in which the individual becomes the primary building block for structuring society. I’m not opposed to individuals or even a certain sense of individualism. But atomization, in which self-sufficiency and self-responsibility become our primary priorities, relies upon the gradual dismantling of relationships. In essence, emotional capitalism creates a world in which relationships have no stakes — there are no risks. We have nothing to lose.
The problem, of course, is that there is also nothing to gain. We call relationships with people in our residential college “incestuous” and abhor the implications of dating classmates, friends and fellow extracurricular leaders. I’ve known friends to discourage couples from remaining together because it may complicate intra-organization extracurricular politics. In essence, relationships must be easy. They must be uncomplicated. And they must be delicate, subject to change — and termination — at every opportunity or crisis.
Yale students often attribute the shallowness of relationships with their peers to “hookup culture” or casual dating and sexual relationships. Still, data from Community Consent Educators indicates that the average Yalie has two hookups per year. The problem isn’t sex. The problem is that our relationships are essentially commodifying, with dating apps a place for snap judgments and cold objectification and friendships lost to the endless tide of “Let’s get a meal sometime!” and “Let me check my GCal!” Our relationships are transactional at the base, opportunities for us to ask favors rather than find meaning. In their song bemoaning the commercialization of sex, “Easier Than Love,” Christian rock band Switchfoot repeats this refrain: “Everyone’s been scared to death of dying here alone.” We are, of course. But we construct a world in which loneliness is easier and easier, becoming risk managers for our enterprises of one.
I’m not sure we can de-commodify our lives on our own. But choosing a compassionate worldview requires forming relationships — deep relationships, relationships that persist even when difficulties arise. These are relationships formed in spite of our desires for self-obsession and self-preservation, ones which force us to care about others as much as we care about ourselves. I think that’s radical.