Social Distancing and Zozobra

Carlos Alberto Sánchez

I can imagine that philosophers from every corner of the philosphere are already pouncing on the philosophical nature of “social distancing”. There are many angles one could take on this theme, but I’d like to briefly touch on one in particular: the difficulty that social distancing presents in our efforts to share our human suffering. 

In the US, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines “social distancing” as follows: “Social distancing means remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible”.

In practice, social distancing is the forced separation of individuals from one another through the use of threats, fear, intimidation, coercion, or suggestion. In its current usage, we are urged to separate or face either the risk of dying or bringing about someone else’s death. Some of us can’t completely separate, so the separation doesn’t necessarily lead to total isolation. For others, social distancing truly means isolation—utter isolation. When John Dunn wrote that no man was an island, he most likely wasn’t thinking about the lengths we would go to in a pandemic. Being islands is what will save us—and this we are told repeatedly. But when philosophers like Husserl or Levinas talk about intersubjectivity, I think that they really believe that being-with-one-another is the best way to be human; it is the best circumstance that allows us to share our thoughts and our human suffering. 

A man that once saved my life is currently in the hospital with cancer in his bones, his blood, his liver and his brain. No one can go see him; no one can be with him to repay his generosity, to testify to his life, or to witness his death. No one can hear his confession before darkness sets in; and no one can speak of their own anxieties in the face of death (not their death, but his dying). It is a tautology to say that we will all die alone, but social distancing means that my friend does not even have the option of witnesses. Sure, doctors and nurses will see him take his last breath, but their witness is a different kind of witness that is out of context and empty of some fundamental connection. Social distancing calls into question this connection—what is it?

According to Emilio Uranga, our accidentality means that our humanity is essentially incomplete; and worse, that this incompleteness means that we are always lacking and so in constant suffering and sadness. He calls this suffering “zozobra.” “Zozobra,” he says, “is an intimate sadness” [89]. But this same zozobra, this same sadness and suffering, is also what makes it possible to connect and commune with others, to come out of our solitude and broach the metaphysical distance that separates us from one another; it is the commonality that avails itself as a point of reference. He writes:

Hearts that are punished and in zozobra lie in a gloomy hollow, but there they are alert….To submerge oneself in originary zozobra seems to be a movement that brings us closer to darkness, toward the annulment of consciousness. But at the extreme point when we are about to give ourselves over to twilight, our wakefulness shines, a subtle antenna readies to receive the message. [Analysis del ser del mexicano, 87]

In other words, being in zozobra makes it possible that we reach across our island to other islands and commune with other solitudes on its basis. Zozobra makes it so that we can be socially together. Uranga:

Zozobra is nothing else but the bare skeleton of the universal to-and-fro that allows creatures of all kinds to communicate woe with the other (85-86)

How can we commune with other zozobras when in conditions of social distancing? How do I share my sadness with my dying friend? And how does he share his fears with me? 

Is there a philosophical problem here? We are told not to gather, to stay apart from one another, and to practice self-enclosure. I think the philosophical problem is that social distancing degrades the bonds of intersubjectivity that we’ve spent social, cultural, and personal histories creating; these bonds now stretch to the point of rupture, the lines of communication are strained and tense.


I think we’re trying to convince ourselves that it could be worse. That, with social media and technology, “staying in touch” with one another is easier than ever before; but it feels like these things are not enough, like something is missing, namely, the possibility to share our true suffering with another human being. You can “Zoom” all you want, but your zozobra will remain just where it is, with no outlet, incommunicable, and hopeless. Uranga says:

The situation is very clear to us. When intersubjectivity is interrupted and two solitudes wall themselves off in the doubtful prestige of their interiority, the process of squandering being is a result of the dizzying pendular movement of zozobra. In this case, zozobra operates as a true bleeding, as a hemorrhage. In solitude the supreme impotence of our being is felt, [94] the impotence or impossibility of being able to handle it, to understand it, to initiate it.

I pray that my dying friend can hang on until this is done and social distancing is nothing more than a topic for graduate philosophy papers. If he does, then I’ll go silently stare at him from 1 to 5 feet away; it will feel like communication then. This, then, rings true:

Zozobra is…a moment of carrying the suffering of others. And this form of communication and communion is not fleeting, it’s not a type of habit, the moment does not die in apathy, but it drags itself across one’s entire life, as if the wound is opened further by understanding that the stranger will burden us again, but in a definitive manner. [91]

San José, California, 20 abril 2020. 

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