We’ve read it again and again – now is our opportunity to build something new, to not have to go back to the world that left so many of us exhausted, out of sorts, alienated and isolated from one another, incapable of caring for ourselves even when we have the material means to do so.
But what does that mean? How do we actually do that? Miraculously, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy published a book this month that gives us a clue.
I first heard of Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World right around when we began sheltering in place. To be sure, the author could not have imagined just how essential this book would be. While we have been in a crisis of connection for many years now, isolation and social distance has come clearly into focus as we all stay in our homes, and it comes with terrifying consequences.
The former surgeon general writes, “Loneliness ran like a dark thread through many of the more obvious issues that people brought to my attention, like addiction, violence, anxiety, and depression.”
Not only can it exacerbate each of these problems, but it’s also been found to be a leading cause of chronic issues like heart disease. As we isolate and physically distance to keep one another safe, we’re particularly vulnerable to increased loneliness.
My life’s work has been to help people move from a place of being “outside” of the community, to finding and building deep, lifelong connections. Now, as the CEO and Co-Founder of OneTable, I’m focused on the power of ritual to mark time, to bring us closer together, and to build essential bonds. Our participants voice a growing need for opportunities to come together around a shared purpose.
So, how might we learn from our past and work now to emerge into a world of connection?
Recently, I was reminded of a famous Jewish parable, attributed to Rabbi Israel Salanter, that goes a bit like this: “I wanted to change the world, and couldn’t. So, I tried to change my town, but couldn’t. So, I tried to change my family, but couldn’t. In my old age, I realized I could only change myself. But by changing myself, I could’ve changed my family, who then could’ve changed my town, which could’ve inspired the world to change along with it.”
Dr. Murthy’s book offers a contemporary reframe of the same story; to move forward and build a more connected society, start with yourself. By first focusing internally, identifying and improving the ways we speak to, love, and care for ourselves, we become better friends, partners, and community members.
Murthy recommends metta, or loving kindness, meditation. I first tried this at an Institute for Jewish Spirituality retreat where Rabbi Lisa Goldstein introduced Dr. Sylvia Boorstein’s teachings that integrate Jewish and Buddhist wisdom. Simply put, first express wishes for love, health, peace and happiness toward the people you know and care about, then express the same wishes to people you only know in passing, then to a broader population, and then to yourself. It’s an accessible practice, it’s hard to mess up, and it’s easily teachable. I’ve shared it with my teenage daughters at home and with my colleagues at work – especially as a tool to find comfort when life feels and when we feel distant from others.
The surgeon general writes, “If we ever forget the power of pausing, we need only remember the lesson of our heart. The heart operates in two phases: systole where it pumps blood to the vital organs and diastole where it relaxes. Most people think that systole is where the action is and the more time in systole the better. But diastole – the relaxation phase – is where the coronary blood vessels fill and supply life sustaining oxygen to the heart muscle itself. Pausing, it turns out, is what sustains the heart.”
Or, as Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi taught, Shabbat is the necessary pause in an otherwise run-on sentence.
While metta is an essential starting point, human connection requires real interaction with others – Murthy highlights that “service may offer a key to healing the trauma of loneliness.” In light of COVID-19, service is essential to rebuilding meaning and purpose within a community.
As I write this, human suffering and need are in sharp relief and at the same time traditional forms of service are limited right now. I invite you to do what you can, whether it’s donating funds to food banks, delivery groceries to vulnerable neighbors, hosting a virtual Shabbat dinner to help mark time and build community, or simply making space for someone to be vulnerable with you over the phone.
“When John and Stephanie Cacioppo were studying solutions for loneliness, they found the most beneficial relationships for our social and emotional health are reciprocal in nature. In other words, people who support each other tend to build the healthiest friendships. These mutually beneficial relationships, in turn, help to secure people individually and protect against loneliness.”Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World
Take a breath, be kind to yourself. With the strength you generate by being kind to yourself, direct that kindness outward. Imagine a world driven by loving kindness and connection. It’s deeply rooted in our wisdom traditions and yours to cherish and share.