This editorial appears in the most recent issue of the Spectrum journal (Volume 51, issue 2). Subscribe to receive the premier journal in Adventism, published since 1969.
Life is wired for connection. A lab mouse will not seek food if it means that a shock will be delivered to other cage mates. Two dolphins respond to an injured pod member by lifting their hurt friend together. Elephants have been observed putting food in the mouth of a deceased member of the herd. Bereaved baboons groom each other. My dog Wilson catches the emotion of whatever we are watching on TV—often times British detective shows. If the program is tense and troubling, she whines, sensing the vibe. Nerves facilitate this mimicry.
The discovery of DNA forever transformed the study of biology, and some think the discovery of mirror neurons may forever shift the study of psychology. Increasingly, science shows the interconnection of life. There is a biological basis for emotional contagion. Empathy is more than imagining what another feels. People live with embodied cognition that responds to the emotions of others, and then forms an explanation later, so that we live in synchrony. In fact, emotion, not language, may be the broader key for connection and cultural development within groups.
Loneliness, known to activate biological inflammation and undermine mental health, has become a public health problem. A recent community assessment for the area surrounding my local church revealed that the top three needs identified were related to social fracture and isolation. The person conveying this information to our congregation automatically skipped down the list, assuming our local church could not—or would not—have the courage to do anything about these needs. Ellen White, in her original listing of natural remedies, did not include an antidote to disengaged communities, but this does not mean this problem is outside the concern of the local church. If our church has nothing to say about societal needs, it is impotent.
For a while, Spectrum has used the motto “Community Through Conversation.” Originally, there was an optimism that the World Wide Web would help us connect and feel supported. Many folks—including me—have found solace and kindred spirits via the platforms sponsored by Spectrum. Yet, this effort of community formation faces numerous limitations. Flat communication platforms lessen the social cost of being a jerk, and people often fail to realize that being a jerk is not proof of one’s courage. Irritability amplifies.
As technology rockets into the future without ethical underpinnings, society has unwittingly become a pawn in a large-scale social engineering experiment, whose end we cannot predict. For now, levels of anxiety and depression rise, and there is evidence that political players around the world seek to harness resentment and anger for nefarious ends. Transnational efforts utilize emotions to unite people, and these emotions rewire their brains. Fear of the other grows. In our attention economy, our own propensities are boomeranged back to us in order to produce maximal online engagement.
I invite you to consider what your faith has to say to our world now. Our theology must underpin our relationship to the culture wars. Here is a modest suggestion: use the healing potential of connection with another person. Have a daily 15-minute conversation with someone who does not live in your home and make it a time when both parties listen to each other. (Functional magnetic imaging of the brain has shown the beneficial effects of such a practice.) Let us look to one another—now—as people created in God’s image. Pro-social interaction moves us away from narcissism toward a clearer picture of our culture, and it brings humility.
God is a healing God. Enhanced connection with others is a start toward restoration.
Carmen Lau is board chair of Adventist Forum.
Title image by Spectrum.
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