Handling Hard Times

hard times 3Like so many artworks, the brain is largely an object of mystery. One secret yet to be discovered is how the fragile folds of matter locked inside our skulls can not only conceive art, create it and contemplate it, but can also experience being transported by it, out of the head, out of the body, out of space and time and reality itself.”

~ Sarah L. Kaufman, et.al.

I’ve been concerned lately about the effect that the current political and world affairs climate has on our mental state. At my house, we’ve joked, only half seriously, about having PTED, post-traumatic election syndrome — basically shock at the way things are these days. We try to manage our outrage through on-line memes, black humor, kitten videos and shutting down all outside communications.

A friend that used to join some of us for breakfast every few weeks stopped coming shortly after the last election — she just felt that there was too much to worry about – things were too wrong. My wife and I have to strictly manage our time watching the news, reading the newspaper and following social media. Every group get-together is preceded by our discussion of who might bring up controversial subjects, and how to avoid that. We even created a safe word, “petunia,” to serve as emergency notice that it’s time to change the subject. (It has now been permanently inserted into most of our social groups.)

It’s tough out there for everyone these days. Apparently the conservatives are consumed with fear of conspiracies, people of color, Jews and poor people. Liberals are flummoxed by the overt political corruption and hypocrisy, the shattering of behavioral norms, and the loss of protections for health, equality and the environment. Everyone is in a state of unease or downright fear.

However, an individual’s mental health is highly dependent on their interactions with others, so avoiding people is not the answer to dealing with the stress. (The recent terrorists are described as ‘loners’.) Everything I have seen indicates that community is critical to well-being. Daan Roosegaarde identifies his list of ten skills for success, including critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, service orientation, negotiation, and cognitive flexibility. Each of these relies on the context of a community of thought and involvement in a supportive community. (I do not consider Fox News as part of a ‘supportive’ community.) His other three skills: complex problem solving, critical thinking, and judgment and decisionmaking, are also strengthened by a network of evaluation and input.

An article by Kaufman, et. al. says, “When we experience art, we feel connected to something larger.” They note, “Art is considered the domain of the heart, but its transporting effects start in the brain, where intricate systems perceive and interpret it with dazzling speed.” They go on, “Social connection is one of the strengths of our species — it’s how we learn from others by imitation. We’re keenly attuned to the emotions and actions of people around us, because our brains are designed for this.”

So, social connection isn’t just a comfortable thing, primarily for extroverts; it is a necessity for success and well-being. They further state, “Social connection is a key function of our brains. It helps us make sense of human behavior, a large part of which is evaluating movement and emotion within us and around us. Our brains like to share emotions with others … A narrative conveys information from one person’s brain to another’s in an effective way. We can learn vicariously through another’s experience from a safe space, without really being involved, which is why storytelling is so powerful … The brain is highly stimulated by motion, body language, facial expression, gestures — all the motor perceptions that could affect survival and our success in social settings … But we’re not only visually pulled to the movements of others. We feel them, in some small way, in our bodies.”

I no longer attend church services, but as a kid I went to our evangelical church most Sundays, and I have since visited others. Although we had no instrumental music, there was something magical about the a’capella singing I experienced in church. I won’t claim it was ‘good’ singing, but it was beautiful because of the community bonding. The grumpy old ladies who sat up front and scowled at any noise you made became angelic in song (even if their voices were not). The guy with the cough and raspy voice mixed in a way that seemed appropriate and added to the emotion. The blend of voices raised together cemented us all as one community, even if it was just for that moment.

Community is both a physical and an emotional state. Good communities combine both in a way that satisfies multiple needs of human nature. So, I encourage you to not just work to create a healthy environment for your community, but to also establish social connections that provide the needed mental support. Plant a tree, but talk with your neighbors, too.

Try to work around the fear, chaos and confusion. Shake it off and get back out there.

Additional information:

Daan Roosegaarde, A Smog Vacuum Cleaner and Other Magical City Designs, TedTalks, April 2017

Sarah L. Kaufman, Dani Player, Jayne Orenstein, May-Ying Lam, Elizabeth Hart and Shelly Tan, Is Your Brain On Art?, The Washington Post, Sept. 18, 2017

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