"In the immediate as well as the symbolic sense, in the physical as well as the intellectual sense, we are at any moment those who separate the connected or connect the separate."

Georg Simmel

The German sociologist and philosopher George Simmel (1858-1918) offers penetrating insights into the mundanities of everyday life, challenging the masses to alter their perspective and think differently.

He offers a counterintuitive reading of two architectural structures in his 1909 essay, “Bridge and Door,” anthologized in Essays on Art and Aesthetics (2020).

Offering a fresh perspective and a hope for connection amidst the closed doors of social distancing, Georg Simmel is emerging as a thinker for our contemporary cultural moment.

Georg Simmel Essays on Art and Aesthetics

Bridge and Door
In the Age of Social Distancing

What a March. When Emily Dickinson and I invited March to come in with open arms of hospitality, we had no idea how out of breath she was.

Our shelter-in-place mandate began 16 days ago here in Monterey, California. In some ways, it feels as though the global pandemic stopped the earth mid-revolution. In other parts of our lives, our world spins madly on without skipping a beat. The landscape has changed some, although this territory is familiar to me.

The same interface Book Oblivion has been using to connect readers worldwide in conversation for three years is now connecting students to their professors, pastors to their congregations, my boys to their nature school instructor, and everyone in between.

In speaking to colleagues, friends, family, and neighbors, I recognize how varied the consequences of this pandemic are. From the tiniest changes in daily circumstances to significant losses of money and delayed retirement, the world is like the wild west. No one has charted this territory before.

Simone Weil taught me every separation is a link. With most of our connections moving online, a gift economy is opening up. Audible has made classic and contemporary stories available to listen to for free. Zoos all over the world are sharing live camera feeds of animal habitats. Resources for home education are being shared widely. Libraries are opening their sources.

There is something remarkable happening right now amidst social distancing that the pioneering thinker on society, Georg Simmel, intuits as early as 1909. It has to do with the bridge and the door. We typically associate the bridge with connection and think the door relates to separation.

Georg Simmel is here to challenge that thought and offer us hope for our current status:

"Whereas in the correlation of separateness and unity, the bridge always allows the accent to fall on the latter, and at the same time overcomes the separation of its anchor points that make them visible and measurable, the door represents in a more decisive manner how separating and connecting are only two sides of precisely the same act."

Georg Simmel, Bridge and Door

Although the bridge is designed to connect one place to another, Simmel challenges us to celebrate the bridge because we tend to forget everything under the bridge that we are overcoming in the name of the connection it inspired. 

Without remembering the fragility of our existence and acknowledging the potential for separation, we take our togetherness for granted. 

"By virtue of the fact that the door forms, as it were, a linkage between the space of human beings and everything that remains outside it, it transcends the separation between the inner and the outer. Precisely because it can also be opened, its closure provides the feeling of a stronger isolation against everything outside this space than the mere unstructured wall. The latter is mute, but the door speaks."

Georg Simmel, Bridge and Door

Georg Simmel Bridge and Door

The door – a robust and erect figure reaching from floor to ceiling – reminds us that we are separate.  

"It is absolutely essential for humanity that it set itself a boundary, but with freedom, that is, in such a way that it can also remove this boundary again, that it can place itself outside it."

Georg Simmel, Bridge and Door

And here’s the rub: our inability to remove the boundary symbolized by the closed door of social distancing reminds us how beautiful human connection is. The gifts we give to each other during this time are motivated by a desire to connect – not capitalize.

Giving is not generated from a scarcity mindset but generosity of perception. We do not share because we lack connection. We share because we are acutely aware of our togetherness even when we are apart – even when a door stands between us. This is part of the human condition that Georg Simmel bravely recognizes. 

Our digital bridges only connect us when we stop taking the possibility of our togetherness for granted. Despite the chaos and confusion being sewn in response to the pandemic, I am witnessing great acts of human connection in the form of attention. 

For that, I am thankful. 

No matter where you are, I hope you and your loved ones are in good health and finding ways to connect amidst this distance. 

“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

Bridge and Door: Georg Simmel on How Separation Inspires Human Connection