This weekend I was helping my four-year-old learn to ride her bike on a public path near our home. I was surprised by the reaction of our fellow cyclists. The majority seemed aggravated that they had to slow down or navigate around a small child.
As this small experience and more serious larger trends suggest, we appear to be living in an age of division.
Between black and white. Between the 1% and the 99%. Between police and young men of color. Between Republicans and Democrats. And, yes, in our innocuous case, between the experienced and the novice.
This decline in our collective social capital and individual connections is not a new trend. Robert Putman’s seminal book on the topic, Bowling Alone, was written almost 20 years ago. Yet today it feels more acute and more dangerous.
Being connected is what makes life worth living. We want to have strong connections to family and friends. We want to feel as if our work is connected to something meaningful. We want to feel connected to our community and neighbors so we can live in a place built of trust and security. And, at least at one point in time, we wanted to feel connected as part of a great country—which was the best one on the planet. One capable of putting a man on the moon and making sure that each generation lived a better life than the one that came before it.
Today we are increasingly less connected in all of the above, and we all seem to be worse off for it. Instinctively, we feel the answer must start by reaching out to people on the opposite side of the proverbial fence/track/aisle.
But perhaps, before reaching outside of our comfort zone, we must first look inside to get comfortable with our own story.
Consider the following:
Half of all Americans can’t name more than one great grandparent, let alone know what country they came from, what their life experiences were, or what they did to make our lives possible (for many African-Americans, keep in mind, this is not through any fault of their own). So should it come as a surprise when we have little compassion for immigrants or refugees?
For those who have done well in America, we ascribe our success largely to individual actions and hard work (a sociological phenomenon called fundamental attribution bias), largely ignoring the environment, people, systems, programs, or just luck that contributed to success. So should it be a shock when the "haves" don’t necessarily feel like they should pay more taxes for the "have nots."
It all starts with the connection we feel to our own story. The less connected to who we are and where we came from, the less likely we are to connect to everything else.
Our lives have a million connections that make us who we are. We are the sum of all the parts that have led us to where we are today. If we pull out one thread from our lives, be it a person, an event, a place, or even a program, the whole fabric of our life would change. This is a fact on which we don’t often reflect.
For some, we may have had some previous awareness about where we’re from, who, and what helped us along the way. Perhaps stories told by our parents, lessons learned in school or from our experience. After all we lived it.
But as time passes, these memories and connections weaken. And as economics Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman would say, we become less our "living self" and more our "remembering self."
The physiological roots of this are laid bare in our brain. Throughout our lives, our brain makes these connections (synapses). And then in an ongoing process called synaptic plasticity, we reorganize, strengthen, weaken, reconstruct, or prune these connections based on how often we recall the memory or if other information we receive affirms of conflicts with this original story.
The result is that we can either "use" or "lose" any part of our own life story, or even reconstruct it in our own minds and tell a slightly different story than what happened. Sound familiar?
When we fail to remember our own story, a few things happen. We can become less appreciative of what helped us and less supportive for those who need help.
To show how deep this runs, it even applies in cases where someone has experienced a similar life challenge to someone else. As research from Rachel Lise Ruttan at Northwestern University shows, people are surprisingly less compassionate to those who are currently going through a struggle that they themselves had previously experienced. Someone who was unemployed but now working is less compassionate for someone now searching for work, or the ex-smoker is less sympathetic to a person trying to quit smoking. The reason? The limited way in which they remember how they overcame their struggle.
Fortunately, we are learning more about how we can restore these connections. For example, a study by Katherine DeCelles at the University of Toronto is showing that guards are kinder to inmates when they are reminded of their own challenges when they were younger.
Another way in which we can use reflection to deepen our connection to our own story is by engaging in a technique being explored by Ruttan and her colleagues. It combines "counterfactual thinking" (creating possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred) and "dialectical bootstrapping" (a process where we are asked to consider why our opinions might be wrong and offer a conflicting opinion).
It is essentially a series of "What if?" questions that challenges our thinking about an accomplishment in life that we are proud of, along with what led to it. The bootstrapping comes in with each subsequent question—asking the person to consider that accomplishment, and think of the smallest possible (and plausible) change in the preceding events that would have made achieving it impossible.
This type of deep questioning of our own story and finding the nuance does not come easy in America. We are raised on the Horatio Alger myth, emphasizing the individual over the collective. Immersed in stories from Rocky to Rudy, we become convinced in the unlimited potential of the individual to rise above any barrier. "Us against the world," instead of "Us with the world."
It may seem counterintuitive that in order to strengthen external connections, we need to look inside ourselves first. This is not an act of narcissism or self-absorption, but rather a necessary and essential exercise in self-reflection and realization.
Imagine if a judge really understood the entire story of how his ancestors came to America before making a ruling that could impact millions of immigrants.
Or how a CEO might treat her employees if she truly appreciated every possible thing that helped her move up the ladder.
Or how a cyclist might look at a little girl, if he reflected back on how his dad had taught him to ride on a crowded path when he was four.
Some say we need a more empathetic society. True. But before trying to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we must first start with understanding more about how we ended up in our own.
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