When the winds calm, power returns, and food and gas are available again, there will still be people who need help. Besides the obvious physical cost of the storm, there is another aftermath that survivors will have to handle. Many of these people will have lost everything dear to them to the wind and the water: their memories, pictures, and memorabilia of loved ones who passed away. No insurance can cover this. There is only one recompense for the emotional loss that such people have endured — new human connections. Forging companionships and solidarity of residents is crucial to restoring the vitality of every disaster ravaged community.
Today, most people are so detached from one another that when they need real friends to help them, many have no one to turn to. Despite our advanced technological means of communication, it is growing harder for us to communicate with one another.
We may think that self-absorption is the personal problem of the self-absorbed, but it is anything but! In truth, the quality of human connections has immense consequences on all of society, and ultimately on the entire planet.
Acclaimed Prof. Nicholas Christakis described human society as a type of “superorganism.” Everything we do, say, and even think, he explains, ripples through society and incites similar emotions, ideas, thoughts, and actions in other people.
We can prove this by this very simple experiment. Within our families, with a few friends, or even with just one friend, if this is all we have, dedicate one day to thinking not about what I want and what will please me, but about what the person or people with whom we are experimenting feel. They, in turn, will do the same toward us.
I can testify that the results will astound you. When everyone focuses on making everyone else happy, it makes life better all around. No one is left out.
If we conduct this type of experiment on a large scale, it will echo through the country and change the way we think about society and how we relate to other people. When masses of people focus on bonding, it makes recovery from trauma, any trauma, infinitely more rapid, effective, and lasting.
The current structure of society, where people are disconnected and mistrustful of each other, makes it much harder on them to endure traumas such as natural disasters. Even day-to-day life is far more difficult when your social life can be encapsulated into a 5-inch communication box, a.k.a. “smartphone.”
The current wave of natural disasters is not the last one, nor is it the worst. If we neglect our social ties, the next wave might prove too challenging to cope with, and who knows what social toll it will take.
Therefore, we can turn the current bane into a boon. Since tens of thousands of people are already concentrated in storm shelters, we can turn them into “connection centers.” Instead of waiting for the all-clear sound to go home, people can busy themselves forming friendships that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. The workshop that I shared in last week’s column demonstrates how easy it is to connect. All we need is to sit together in small groups and share these four things: 1) the most emotional moment for us in this event, 2) if and how Irma has shaped our attitude toward other people, 3) how we hope to express this new attitude, and 4) the benefits of sharing our experiences and thoughts in this manner.
Beyond the social benefit, there is another, more elusive prize to positive human connections: their impact on the environment. Social isolation undermines our emotional and mental stability, and drives us to look for compensation for our lack of human companionship. When this condition affects hundreds of millions of people, it affects everything, including even the environment.
The superorganism that Christakis describes is not confined to human society. Just like our own bodies consist of all levels of existence — mineral, vegetative, and animate — the superorganism of humanity is part of an even larger system that is our planet. When someone’s kidneys fail, it is the whole person who is sick, not just his or her kidneys. Likewise, when humanity is sick, it makes all of Earth unwell.
The symptoms may seem unrelated, but just as a headache doesn’t mean I have a problem with my head, Earth is showing its symptoms in ways we don’t understand. But what we do know is that we are an ailing society, and curing it will cure the entire superorganism we all live in. For this reason, if we want to abate natural disasters, we must heal our own society, or more precisely, our ill connections with one another.
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