America is floundering in the wake of an “antisocial revolution,” writes columnist Derek Thompson in The Atlantic this week — a poisonous combination of too much technology, too little human interaction, and the erosion of churches and other essential social institutions.

Thompson’s research suggests this cultural erosion birthed Gen. Z — the loneliest, least social generation America’s ever seen.

The cultural winds buffeting my generation have clearly been building for decades, as Thompson illustrates; I will likely never know how much these forces have affected me.

But I am intimately aware of how the pandemic rotted my social abilities.

That’s why I’m humbly asking you to have grace for the friends, kids, or grandkids in your life that seem socially immature or disconnected from the world.

They’re likely struggling with social starvation, like I was.

I’m 90% sure I was socially normal until four years ago. I had a small but tight group of friends in middle and high school, where I attended football games and dances. I made friends quickly in college, and relished spontaneous beach trips and Target runs.

And then … lockdown.

When I flew home for Spring Break in March 2020, I thought I would return to my friends in a week. I didn’t see them again until September.

My school made the chaotic jump to online learning. My classmates and I talked over each other incessantly for the first couple weeks on camera — we couldn’t tell when others were getting ready to speak, the way we could in a real classroom.

Eventually, my discussion-oriented Communications classes became lectures.

I was so excited when we returned to “in-person” classes six months later, before we were informed that “in-person” meant outside, masked-up, in plastic chairs without desks. Conversation was no easier here than it had been online.

The gym was closed, the cafeteria was closed, the library was closed, the chapel was closed. The pool was open … but the locker room was closed. All student events were canceled or held online.

We were sternly admonished to associate only with our roommates, so social gatherings became clandestine meetings in proverbial dark corners. Cramped science buildings with unlocked doors became our unofficial study space. Friends snuck into each other’s rooms, whispering to avoid attracting a Resident Assistant’s attention.

The consequences of breaking the rules? 10 days confined in a dorm room alone, until campus doctors confirmed you were COVID-free.

Fast forward two years — COVID-19 restrictions in California have finally been lifted. We can eat in restaurants, walk outside without masks, and have class in actual classrooms.

I’m standing in a room with twenty other classmates. Everyone is trying to talk, but the easy camaraderie of years past is gone. Everything feels painfully awkward — laughs too high-pitched, pauses too long.

It’s my first taste of a normal club gathering in years, and I realize we’ve all forgotten how to make small talk.

If social fitness, like physical fitness, requires careful maintenance and attention, as Thompson suggests, I had become socially anorexic. The life-long muscles I built to read faces, converse casually, and forge new connections had atrophied.

I graduated college two-and-a-half years ago, and I’m still reckoning with the effects of this deterioration.

Before COVID-19, I considered myself an extrovert; today, even fun social interactions can leave me exhausted. I plan every excursion in advance, so I have time to slip into my social alter-ego — no more spontaneous outings for me. I battle anxiety before going to young adult groups and community events, critical of every word I say and gesture I make.

I don’t want to seem ungrateful or helpless. I have an excellent support system, founded on and buoyed by my faith in Jesus. My social muscles may be atrophied, but I am blessed with plenty of opportunities to build them back up. I’ve chosen to reinvest in my social health, and believe it or not, I’ve made some good progress.

Gentle discipleship and kindness from trusted adults has been instrumental in my healing process. Consider reminding the disconnected people in your life that abundant life is not only available, but well worth living.

If the situation warrants it, a little genuine validation goes a long way. Tell them you understand why they’re struggling, that you don’t think they’re lazy or weak.

After all, you can’t lock somebody in their house for two years with only an iPad for company, plop them back in the real world, and expect them to perform social cartwheels.