We had to be set apart in order to feel together.
Screw this virus. Screw this virus that is already ravaging families, burying people in the hard isolation of the same four walls, leaving waitresses in anguish about how they’re going to pay the rent. If you don’t have a little hate in your heart toward this thing, you probably aren’t motivated enough.
While we’re at it, screw certainty. Over the past few weeks I’ve been bingeing on commentary from people predicting how long this is going to last and how bad it’s going to be. The authors seem really smart and their data sets seem really terrible.
I’m beginning to appreciate the wisdom that cancer patients share: We just can’t know. Don’t expect life to be predictable or fair. Don’t try to tame the situation with some feel-good lie or confident prediction. Embrace the uncertainty of this whole life-or-death deal.
There’s a weird clarity that comes with that embrace. There is a humility that comes with realizing you’re not the glorious plans you made for your life. When the plans are upset, there’s a quieter and better you beneath them.
We’re seeing the world with plague eyes now. We’re all going through the same experiences. People in Seoul, Milan and New Jersey are connected by a virus that reminds us of the fundamental fact of human interdependence.
Most of us are self-distancing at the same time. Most of us are experiencing the same pause in normal life, undergoing deeper reflections inspired by that pause, experiencing the same anxieties and fears, reading the same memes. So many human universals.
The great paradox, of course, is that we had to be set apart in order to feel together. I’ve been writing about the social fabric for years now, but you really see it only after you’ve lost it.
It’s like when you’re starving, and food is all you can think about. Suddenly everybody has human connection on the top of mind.
All the little acts of social contact we took for granted now seem like candy. I miss choruses and sports bars, the weird way we all used to stare straight ahead in crowded elevators.
Judging from my social network, the absence of social connection is making everybody more ardent for it. People are geniuses at finding ways to touch each other even when they can’t. On Twitter I saw a picture of a house where an older lady was self-isolating. Two neighborhood kids put on a cello concert on her front porch. Have you noticed that music and art are already filling the emotional gaps left by the absence of direct human contact?
Through plague eyes I realize there’s an important distinction between social connection and social solidarity. Social connection means feeling empathetic toward others and being kind to them. That’s fine in normal times.
Social solidarity is more tenacious. It’s an active commitment to the common good — the kind of thing needed in times like now.
This concept of solidarity grows out of Catholic social teaching. It starts with a belief in the infinite dignity of each human person but sees people embedded in webs of mutual obligation — to one another and to all creation. It celebrates the individual and the whole together, and to the nth degree.
Solidarity is not a feeling; it’s an active virtue. It is out of solidarity, and not normal utilitarian logic, that George Marshall in “Saving Private Ryan” endangered a dozen lives to save just one. It’s solidarity that causes a Marine to risk his life dragging the body of his dead comrade from battle to be returned home. It’s out of solidarity that health care workers stay on their feet amid terror and fatigue. Some things you do not for yourself or another but for the common whole.
It will require a tenacious solidarity from all of us to endure the months ahead. We’ll be stir-crazy, bored, desperate for normal human contact. But we’ll have to stay home for the common good. It’s an odd kind of heroism this crisis calls for. Those also serve who endure and wait.
I wonder if there will be an enduring shift in consciousness after all this. All those tribal us-them stories don’t seem quite as germane right now. The most relevant unit of society at the moment is the entire human family.
All those burn-it-down/destroy-the-system/anti-establishment tirades ring a little hollow, too. It’s not the angry outsiders who are protecting us right now, it’s the Establishment.
The whole culture of autonomy seems immature, too: I’m free to be myself! The people who are out there doing their own thing are at Spring Break threatening the lives of the most vulnerable around them.
We’ll need a great reset when this is all over. We need to start planning a great social festival and ask the obvious questions: Why did we tolerate so much social division before? Why didn’t we cultivate stronger social bonds when we had the chance?
In the meantime, as someone on my Twitter feed observed: Airport rules apply. If you want a beer at 9 a.m., go for it.
For some reason — let’s say another way to paraphrase “repairing public discourse” is, we want to grow up as a society. We want to be worthy of the moment we inhabit and meet it with our best. We possess a lot of intelligence in our lives, in our families about, for example, that nothing gets any better if people don’t acknowledge mistakes they made, and we don’t embrace that and encourage them to grow, and that you never, ever change anybody’s mind by telling them how stupid they are, ever.
Ms. Tippett:Ever in history has that happened.
Ms. Kohn:Well, I want to say, to me, the opposite of hate isn’t love. It’s connection. You don’t have to love people to not hate them. You have to see that you have something at your core, a fundamental humanity, a fundamental goodness, that transcends the division. The reason I talk about my Aunt Lucy is, there are people who, when you meet them, when you know them, when I talk to my trolls, you realize that we’re at a point in our society, in our history, where we focus on a very small sliver of our beliefs to fight over. I don’t know about you, but when I see my relatives who I don’t agree with on 100 percent of — first of all, I have a whole bunch of relatives I don’t agree with on 100 percent of political issues. But I don’t see them as — they’re still on my side because we — I don’t know; what do we agree on? Ninety percent of the political issues? Where’s that dividing line? The point is, when I see my Aunt Lucy — all right, maybe we disagree on even more — I still love her. I still care about her. I still know she’s a good person and wants what’s best for me and my family and the country and the world. That is a really good place to be able to start to then talk about what we disagree on.
You are not just thinking with your brain.
This has been a golden age for brain research. We now have amazing brain scans that show which networks in the brain ramp up during different activities. But this emphasis on the brain has subtly fed the illusion that thinking happens only from the neck up. It’s fed the illusion that the advanced parts of our thinking are the “rational” parts up top that try to control the more “primitive” parts down below.
So it’s interesting how many scientists are now focusing on the thinking that happens not in your brain but in your gut. You have neurons spread through your innards, and there’s increasing attention on the vagus nerve, which emerges from the brain stem and wanders across the heart, lungs, kidney and gut.
The vagus nerve is one of the pathways through which the body and brain talk to each other in an unconscious conversation. Much of this conversation is about how we are relating to others. Human thinking is not primarily about individual calculation, but about social engagement and cooperation.
One of the leaders in this field is Stephen W. Porges of Indiana University. When you enter a new situation, Porges argues, your body reacts. Your heart rate may go up. Your blood pressure may change. Signals go up to the brain, which records the “autonomic state” you are in.
Maybe you walk into a social situation that feels welcoming. Green light. Your brain and body get prepared for a friendly conversation. But maybe the person in front of you feels threatening. Yellow light. You go into fight-or-flight mode. Your body instantly changes. Your ear, for example, adjusts to hear high and low frequencies — a scream or a growl — rather than midrange frequencies, human speech. Or maybe the threat feels like a matter of life and death. Red light. Your brain and body begin to shut down.
According to Porges’s “Polyvagal Theory,” the concept of safety is fundamental to our mental state. People who have experienced trauma have bodies that are highly reactive to perceived threat. They don’t like public places with loud noises. They live in fight-or-flight mode, stressed and anxious. Or, if they feel trapped and constrained, they go numb. Their voice and tone go flat. Physical reactions shape our way of seeing and being.
“You might think that in everyday life, the things you see and hear influence what you feel, but it’s mostly the other way around: What you feel alters your sight and hearing,” Barrett writes in “How Emotions Are Made.”
When we’re really young we know few emotion concepts. Young children say, “Mommy, I hate you!” when they mean “I don’t like this” because they haven’t learned their culture’s concepts for hatred vs. badness. But as we get older we learn more emotional granularity. The emotionally wise person can create distinct experiences of disappointment, anger, spite, resentment, grouchiness and aggravation, whereas for a less emotionally wise person those are all synonyms for “I feel bad.”
A wise person may know the foreign words that express emotions we can’t name in English: tocka (Russian, roughly, for spiritual anguish) or litost (Czech, roughly, for misery combined with the hunger for revenge). People with high emotional granularity respond flexibly to life, have better mental health outcomes and drink less.
If bodily reactions can drive people apart they can also heal. Martha G. Welch of Columbia University points to the importance of loving physical touch, especially in the first 1,000 minutes of life, to lay down markers of emotional stability.
Under the old brain-only paradigm, Welch argues, we told people to self-regulate their emotions through conscious self-talk. But real emotional help comes through co-regulation. When a mother and a child physically hold each other, their bodily autonomic states harmonize, connecting on a metabolic level. Together they move from separate distress to mutual calm.
Welch has created something called the Welch Emotional Connection Screen, which measures the emotional connection between mothers and pre-term babies. By encouraging this kind of deep visceral connection through 18 months, her therapy can mitigate the effects of autism.
When you step back and see the brain and body thinking together, the old distinction between reason and emotion doesn’t seem to make sense. Your very perception of the world is shaped by the predictions your brain is making about your physical autonomic states.
You also see how important it is to teach emotional granularity, something our culture pays almost no attention to.
You also see that we’re not separate brains, coolly observing each other. We’re physical viscera, deeply interacting with each other. The important communication is happening at a much deeper level.