What’s Been Bubbling Up?

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

One of the social thinkers who helped to invent the field of sociology, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) used the term “collective effervescence” to describe what happens when people act in social ways to create something bigger than themselves. I try to bring an Alka-Seltzer tablet to class and drop it in a glass of water to demonstrate what this looks like. As societies evolve and become more complex, the bubbling up only gets bigger.

We’ve all been in large gatherings where it seemed everyone was moved to collective action by a speaker or new ideas.  People volunteer after hearing about a neighborhood need. Members of a society pay taxes and in so doing support all kinds of activities for the common good, like public transportation, community healthcare and police. Social good bubbles up because together we make things happen that we could never get done by ourselves.

These past few years of social crises have me wondering about why people view clear-cut situations very differently. Why do people who share so much in common divide up on issues and seem unwilling to agree on what look like reasonable solutions? Does this sound familiar to you?

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“The main condition for the achievement of love is the overcoming of one’s narcissism. The narcissistic orientation is one in which one experiences as real only that which exists within oneself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous to one. The opposite pole to narcissism is objectivity; it is the faculty to see other people and things as they are, objectively, and to be able to separate this objective picture from a picture which is formed by one’s desires and fears.” ― Erich Fromm

Something else is bubbling up in our society and it’s not getting resolved. What’s causing this kind of thinking and acting when it comes to politics, race/ethnicity, medical care, education and policing? I’m not sure there’s a quick answer. But there is a very interesting explanation for how extreme ideas and attitudes spread, like an infection, throughout groups and even whole societies.

When it was originally getting organized, medical science was beginning to learn about how infection occurred through germs, viruses and contact. Social Contagion Theory was created over time to help explain how certain ideas and then actions get passed around, evolve, mutate and spread throughout groups. Similar to the ways that germs spread.

Where did this normal guy I’m related to come up with these wild ideas all of a sudden? Maybe it didn’t happen “all of a sudden” and maybe he didn’t invent this thinking – maybe he caught it somewhere/somehow? What if I’m the one that’s got the strange ideas?

So your aunt has been in the car too long getting an overdose of NPR. Maybe that guy at work has lost his remote and his TV is stuck on the Fox channel? Well, of course people who only hear one side of the story tend to fall into opposing opinion camps. But this sort of activity is going on all the time. What’s happening lately seems out of the ordinary, doesn’t it?

“I learn from my own daughter that you don’t have to be awake to cry.” ― Jodi Picoult

Maybe the global pandemic, being quarantined, large and sudden economic shifts, and violent political turmoil have all created a unique series of toxic germs that have spread throughout society?

According to Contagion Theory:

  1. People can act differently when they are in a crowd. There is the anonymity that’s always possible. We might do or say things that we wouldn’t if all eyes were on us as an individual. There have been a number of crowds on the streets, in big cities and even the capital. Think about how this might apply to our online activity.
  2. During times of strain and disorder, emergent interactions occur. People don’t always know how to feel or respond during extraordinary situations. Both consciously and unconsciously, we look to our social groups to help us understand and appropriately communicate our feelings. The explosion of media sources and the internet itself has provided people with new sources of social connection, albeit impersonal and transitory. Without realizing it, many are being baited into emotional responses they normally would not be having at this level.
  3. What often happens is called a circular reaction. People can pay too much attention to isolated cases. They look at the outliers and not the average. All of us are prone to biases in thinking – we only see what reinforces our preconceptions. Seeing these examples (“see, I told you!”) causes emotional arousal – anger, fear and suspicion.  Then, what can occur, if we talk about it to our social circles, either in person or online, is contagion. Our normal inner resistance to these ideas are socially reinforced. During times when we are not living under extraordinary stress and anxiety, we might never pay attention to these isolated cases or to the voices of the crowds around us who are giving voice to our unnamed feelings.

That’s way too much theory! But that’s what people like me do during times like these when there is so much disorder all around – and even within myself. I’m searching for explanations also because, down deep, I’m a fixer. I want to know what’s wrong so we can accurately diagnose and then get back on track.

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“There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.” ― G. K. Chesterton

If Contagion Theory is a good way of analyzing why people all around you (yourself included) are responding in irrational and extreme ways to social situations, then here’s some suggestions to help:

  1. Get out of your familiar crowds and join some that don’t always think the way you do. Switch your media sources for a little while. Maybe get off the internet and spend time with people in person.
  2. Open your ears and mind to listening to ideas and reactions that don’t necessarily agree with your own (stop spending all your energy defending your own position).
  3. Find some ways to get more perspective on your thoughts and feelings. Writing it out helps. Read your Bible. Reflect on how you’ve responded to crises in the past. Talk with your parents and older relatives to get their longer view of life.
  4. Try and locate your jar of empathy in the back of the cupboard.

“If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.”  ― Frederick Buechner

Always Worth Remembering

“I would like to learn, or remember, how to live.” ― Annie Dillard

  • Memorial Day is an American holiday, observed on the last Monday of May, honoring the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military.
  • Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971.  Did you realize it was that recent a holiday? (www.history.com)
  • Each year on Memorial Day a national moment of remembrance takes place at 3:00 p.m. local time. A “Taps Across America” is planned for this year. Click on the link to learn more. I remember being in Galveston for dinner one evening and discovering there was a veteran who played “Taps” each evening from the balcony across the intersection. All the other residents, business owners and tourists gathered together in the cool breeze and stood in honor for those few minutes, all together as one.

Memorial Day is often confused with Veterans Day. That holiday, formerly known as Armistice Day, was originally set as a U.S. legal holiday to honor the end of World War I, which officially took place on November 11, 1918. In legislation that was passed in 1938, November 11 was “dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be hereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day.'” As such, this new legal holiday honored World War I veterans. In 1954, after having been through both World War II and the Korean War, the 83rd U.S. Congress — at the urging of the veterans service organizations — amended the Act of 1938 by striking out the word “Armistice” and inserting the word “Veterans.” With the approval of this legislation on June 1, 1954, Nov. 11 became a day to honor American veterans of all wars. (www.military.com)

You have people in your family or circle who have served in the military. Some have given their lives in that service. Of course you always remember them. But most importantly, don’t forget to bear their memory to the next generation. Tell your friends, loved ones, children and their ancestors about who they were. Don’t limit their lives to this tremendous service, open their story and tell some of the details to others.

I’ve got a platform in the classes I teach to talk about world events. World War 2 dramatically changed the fortunes of my family. Every male in my grandfathers immediate family served in the war, and all returned home! It was a very large family. I try and explain to others the dramatic change in fortunes this experience had on our extended family for generations to come. What I don’t do is tell the individual stories enough, how those young men left the hard scrabble of the Texas Hill Country and changed the world.

I just told my daughter that her great-grandfather, who served in WW2, helped to rebuild the bridge over the Llano River back in the 1930’s. It was a public works program, one of thousands that FDR had launched to help get us out of the Great Depression. My daughter is a history teacher, I knew she’d appreciate this part of the story. Also, a little drama, he fell off while working on it!

There are heroes in your life, aren’t there?

What about making your new normal life one that is lived passing down the memory of heroic figures in your life to the next generation? It seems we are surrounded by anti-heroes these days. These make for much better television.

There’s a box on my table that I’m collecting old framed photos into. My plan is to send to a cousin so he can hold these memories as I have. He’s got a young son who needs to hear about his ancestors and who he came from.

Why don’t you decide to hang up a picture, have more family dinners with no technology, make a phone call or write something down? Make an extra effort to remember aloud people who made a difference and whose deeds and values still could? Make a kind of memorial day in your life for the sake of others who need some nourishment.

I made some cookies the other day. The kind my grandmother used to make. None of us are supposed to be eating cookies these days, so there’s no one to share with. The act reminded me of a memory of place. There are people in your life who were significant, but there were also places and times. These should be remembered too. My grandmother had a little narrow kitchen, no appliances to speak of (certainly not a dishwasher!), yet she cooked and baked plain old memories for her family. My version of those cookies don’t seem right, but they did the trick. I remember the place so long ago and how happy it made all of us because we were loved.

“As you get older, it’s more difficult to have heroes, but it’s just as necessary.”
― Ernest Hemmingway

And then, there’s all the health and wealth that remembering brings to your own self. Don’t forget these people for all of the subtle influence, the investment of time and attention, the examples of character and love. Remember the heroes from the past and what each has planted in the soil of your life.

“The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. But again and again we avoid the long thoughts…. We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. And why not, after all? We get confused. We need such escape as we can find. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.” ― Frederick Buechner

 

 

Scars on Your Head

My wife had a gruesome scar on her head. It was her second. She had brain surgery twice. Her hair grew back and the scar was nice and hidden, but we both knew it there. Now, right after surgery, it’s very obvious. Makes me think about scars in general. All sorts of scars that we all carry around in our heads. Mostly hidden from others.

  • Sometimes our past leaves its mark
  • Other people hurt us and make a mark that never leaves
  • We keep making the same mistakes and those marks keep making scars on our lives
  • Life can deal us a terrible blow that wounds us deeply

Scars can make your life a misery. They can remind you of harm and hurt. But they can also be reminders of healing and hope. Life becomes what it is for the most part because of the way we decide to look at it, to carry it around with us, to use it (instead of letting it use us!).

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” ― Kahlil Gibran

You can keep your scars all to yourself, hidden away, feeling some sort of shame or you can do something else. You can take your scars out of your pocket and help someone else on their road to healing. Take your pain and suffering and offer it as a healing reminder. One day this will be behind you!

“Scars. A sign that you had been hurt. A sign that you had healed.” ― Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Let someone else know they are not alone. Offer a helping hand to someone behind you on the road. Sometimes, only another person who has been where I am truly understands and knows just what I need. Be available as that kind of person. Don’t let your scars get in the way.

Whatever you do, don’t let your scars turn you into a monster, inside and out. Stop looking in the mirror and start looking for someone else who needs some love. They’re probably lying right there on the side of the road you travel every day.

“You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own; but you cannot become human on your own.”― Frederick Buechner

 

Let all that I am praise the Lord;
with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name.
Let all that I am praise the Lord;
may I never forget the good things he does for me.
He forgives all my sins
and heals all my diseases.
He redeems me from death
and crowns me with love and tender mercies.
He fills my life with good things.
My youth is renewed like the eagle’s!

Psalm 103:1-5