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?

Black Friday 2012: Nothing puts off shoppers as US goes crazy for bargains | Daily Mail Online

“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.

20,537 Conflict Resolution Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock

“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

Tied To You With a Silver Chain

The wedding you have always dreamed of - Sofitel Hotel

A few weeks ago I was privileged to be able to be the “officiant” at my niece’s wedding. She and her new husband had been dating through their high school and college years together. They are now launching a bold new life as husband and wife. I’m so thrilled it is a post-pandemic adventure!

“To keep your marriage brimming, with love in the wedding cup, whenever you’re wrong, admit it; whenever you’re right, shut up.” ― Ogden Nash

Can you imagine what it must have been like to try and plan a wedding a year ago, not knowing what the conditions would be like THIS June? Weddings are already filled with stress. They and their families pulled it off brilliantly – you would never have known they had all this uncertainty hanging over their collective heads.

“Normal, in our house, is like a blanket too short for a bed–sometimes it covers you just fine, and other times it leaves you cold and shaking; and worst of all, you never know which of the two it’s going to be.” ― Jodi Picoult

As I stood there and walked them through the big and life-long promises they were making to God, each other and all their family and friends…I knew they were nervous wrecks. I had sent them their vows ahead of time so that they would know what they were getting into.

But, when I stand there these days there are things going through my head…

  1. I’m teaching classes every semester about the state of marriages and families in our society right now. It’s not a very pretty picture, especially for children. What’s most alarming is that no one seems very concerned – notice what we are all currently “worked up” about in the news and social media.
  2. Anyone who’s been married, and stayed the course for any length of time knows that it’s hard to avoid thinking about your vows, “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…” As I looked into the faces of this beautiful couple I couldn’t help but look into the future and think about the trials and tribulations that awaited them, that awaited all of us who got married.

“Marriage has no guarantees. If that’s what you’re looking for, go live with a car battery.”Erma Bombeck

Sailing into the Sunset Photograph by Robert Shard

One Valentine’s Day (I think) as my wife was starting to fade away (a brain tumor ultimately ended her life on earth) an old song from our past struck me as very appropriate. I copied down some of the lyrics and tried to create a symbolic gift. I don’t think it worked well, she wasn’t ready to “catch it” that day. But it still works for me – here I am three years later and it’s making my life more meaningful than yesterday.

The song is Southern Cross by Crosby, Stills and Nash. Talk about an old classic! Stephen Stills rewrote the original lyrics basing it on a sailing experience he had after a failed relationship. Well, that’s NOT what I got out of the song!

Flag of New Zealand.svg

The Southern Cross is a star constellation that sailors can see in the night sky from the southern hemisphere. Before technology, they would use it to navigate. That star constellation is a part of the flags of New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Samoa and Papua New Guinea.

Think about
Think about how many times I have fallen
Spirits are using me, larger voices callin’
What Heaven brought you and me cannot be forgotten

What I heard in the lyrics was a story about never being able to escape true love – that no matter what circumstances you end up sailing through – that vow you made long ago before God and all your loved ones is meant to last. Don’t let go, even though the fickle voices all around are urging you to abandon ship. Don’t turn loose. If you do, you’ll never get back a part of yourself.

So I’m sailing for tomorrow my dreams are a-dyin’
And my love is an anchor tied to you (tied with a silver chain)
I have my ship and all her flags are a-flyin’
She is all that I have left and music is her name

On that Valentine’s Day I gave my wife a silver chain with an anchor (along with the lyrics). I think it meant more to me, now that I realize her condition at the time and all that was overwhelming her. That’s okay. All of us need to do things for others and just not worry about the outcome. Sometimes it takes a while. Sometimes it’s not how you thought it would turn out. And other times it’s meant to be for you (when all is said and done).

The newly married couple zoomed off later that morning in their father’s sports car. It was a wonderful scene for the assembled crowd of loved ones. Racing ahead into a future of happily ever after. Maybe a darkened sky every now and then might appear. But surely they had found and were building enough true love to carry them through all the days ahead. Tied with a silver chain, anchored to withstand all the choppy waters the future might bring.