When Distance is an Act of Love

Our second blog post by our Mindfulness Chaplain, Dr Kitty Wheater on the theme of "When Distance is an Act of Love".

In times like these, much is asked of us and much will be given.

Part of what is asked, is that we stand physically apart from others, and what is given to us is is that we care for ourselves and each other more deeply.

Dr Kitty Wheater, our Mindfulness Chaplain, shows us some ways this can happen, in the second post in our series titled When Distance is an Act of Love.


Shadow of a person on a rock, while another person walks along the cliff top in the distance
'Beyond East Beach' by Harriet Harris

As you read this, I know that many of you – like me – will be working from home. Among you, there will be many going beyond that. This week I have been in touch with a number of students who are self-isolating, to protect themselves, partners, and family members. The coronavirus pandemic may be a public health emergency, but it is something else, too: it is an ethical emergency. Ethical, because it asks us to question all the invisible and banal ways in which we usually interact with those around us – our families, colleagues, and strangers – in order to care for us all. Emergency, because it does so with a suddenness, urgency, and ubiquity that is not found in the flow of ordinary life.

The etymology of the word distance means ‘to stand apart’. We often don’t like this: we call it aloofness, detachment, disengagement, or apathy. Distance doesn’t seem like care. If you listened to Desert Island Discs last week, you will have heard Daniel Radcliffe describe the best piece of advice he ever received, from his dad: 'Whenever you meet somebody, always get your hand out first to shake their hand.'

It seems all the more strange to be in a situation where ‘taking care’ means being physically distant from others. Now, care is measured in metres, rooms, and buildings apart, and the new rules of caring for ourselves mean we must even be distant from our own faces: keeping those hands where you can see them, and using your elbow to hit the light switch. (Perhaps that’s just me.)

And that feeling that this is all a bit strange, and drastic, is the sign of extraordinary rather than ordinary times – emergency, rather than just emergence. Times like these make the invisible visible and the normal strange. In a society with a duty of care to its vulnerable – even if they look ‘young and healthy’, like my students with asthma, and other underlying health conditions – social distancing asks us to imagine and enact a new kind of care for ourselves and each other, a care in which distance is an act of love.

Right now, to stand apart is to be close, to ourselves and each other. It’s new, and not easy. But in our ordinary lives of the mind, and with each other, there are other forms of distance that we are used to celebrating. We talk glowingly of critical distance, perspective, and equanimity. When it comes to ethical qualities, we know from research on compassion that compassion is not being without boundaries – rather, it’s dependent on them.

That’s why I like this week’s short talk and meditation practice from Ruth King. It’s a ‘metta’ practice – metta being the Pali word for friendliness. It invites you to draw on your experience of when others have been kind to you, and bring that friendliness and kindness to yourself and however you might be feeling in this moment, and in these times.

Metta practice demonstrates the paradox of distance and closeness beautifully. Formal meditation practice is in itself a kind of distancing, a deliberate stepping out of clock time and of the ordinary day, to move in close to and cultivate the qualities we will need to take back into it. ‘Stay close to yourself in this practice, if you can,’ Ruth guides. In so doing, we move in close not only to ourselves, but also to how others can care for us, and how we might for them.

Sometimes, to distance is to move in close, and in that movement, a new horizon appears.


Kitty’s weekly mindfulness virtual drop-in consists of an email with a suggested practice, theme, and article or podcast episode for reflection, to explore in your own time. Email mindfulness@ed.ac.uk to subscribe.