February 26, 2021
Thanks to Kyle Ryan Williams, an HMU 2021 Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.
In this pandemic era, COVID-19 has turned everything on its head. We are forced to isolate ourselves away from others in hopes of minimizing the rate by which the virus is transmitted. The prevention and sickness and death from the virus itself are not the only variable at play. Hospitalization rates may be the most obvious, yet the adverse effects on individuals isolated are a whole different problem. Suicide and depression rates are through the roof as the prevention of COVID-19 has brought about a new sickness, the sickness of the heart. We are social creatures; our brains do not develop or function properly unless we are interacting with other humans. But slowing the spread does not mean isolation from the world and other humans per se. Whatever situation one may find themself in, as we vary in potential movement, we should take time to recognize who is close and around us often and attempt to forge strong relationships with them; as these relationships are at the center of well-being. To me, the pandemic brings forth a much needed opportunity, to reestablish what seems to have been lost in our rapid, fast pace industrialized twenty-first century culture, time to slow down and build meaningful relationships.
To establish meaningful relationships with a few individuals is not a new concept as Democritus, a young contemporary of Socrates, once said, “One man means as much to me as multitudes and a multitude only as much as one man.” Epictetus, the Greek Stoic, said, “I write this not for the many, but for you, each of us is enough of an audience for the other.” Aristotle spoke of three types of friendship; one based on pleasure, another on utility, and one that we should all aim for, one based around virtue. While it does not take a rocket scientist to know friends are important, I believe it is essential to buttress our ancient intuition with modern ideas and science. In a way, this is called consilience, which is a probabilistic strategy for truth seeking (I just lost all rationalist readers). In brief, something is more likely to be true the more independent strains of research point towards the same conclusion. For example, one way we can know if the person standing in front of you is real is if you can see them, feel them, smell them, hear them, etc. Your independent senses triangulate on the same conclusion, the person in front of you is real (enough). Of course, one’s senses may be manipulated by a Cartesian demon, but then again, are we not all?
My field of interest is complexity theory, which a relatively simple idea can sum up, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” This idea implies that the components of the system are interacting with one another in a non-linear manner, creating new phenomena from the interactions. Said in a friendlier way, the strength of the connection is more important than the number of connections. This brings me back to the topic of friendship; what your best friend says about you is more important than thousands of comments from strangers as your friend can speak to you with a high resolution of context in a dynamic fashion unavailable to the trolls around the world. The category of “best friend” is not just a better, more improved version of a friend; it is a different phenomenon. The societal pleasantries that constrain most interactions vanish in the presence of your best friend. As the Roman Stoic Seneca once said regarding friends, “…welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself.” In 2007, Demir, Ozemir, and Weitekamp found it was the quality of one’s relation with their best friend, potentially spouse, which was the only significant predictor of life satisfaction; the second-best friend did not play a role. In addition, in 2012, Oishi and Kesebir found that a large yet shallow friend pool was negatively associated with well-being compared to a small and deep one. This finding came with an additional exciting finding, important to friendship in the pandemic era. The authors suggest that residential stability may play a role in allowing deeper relationships to foster as they allow for more interactions over a more extended period of time with the same individuals.
Suppose the development of strong bonds with a small set of individuals increases one’s well-being. In that case, the next question to be asked is ‘What qualities does the strength of the connection bring forth?’ To answer this question, it is important to introduce a concept developed by Dr. Siegal called Me + We = MWE. MWe is a useful linguistic symbol used to represent an important psychological fact, that our mind is an integration of internal (our body, interests, moments of solitude, reflections, etc.) and relational (friends, family, community, etc.) components. We have mirror neurons which allow us to learn new skills simply by watching and interacting with others. These mirror neurons act as a gateway to empathy. We have the ability to empathize and feel what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes. Empathy is not an intellectual exercise but instead used to tune one’s own emotions with the state of emotions of another. Our minds are primed to absorb information, our minds are not only within but between. To talk about one without talking about the other is to tell only half the story. If the aim is well-being, a proper balance of the two is in order. Familiar examples to be avoided of both extremes (non-voluntary isolation and doing everything for other people, to the determinant of one’s self) do not require much imagination.
So maybe, to forge a strong relationship with another is just an extension of the Delphic maxim to know thyself. We learn to understand others by understanding ourselves, which allows for a better understanding of others, and an even better understanding of ourselves; hence the MWe dynamic. A true friend creates a positive feedback loop of understanding that allows for new values to emerge. Who knows, maybe C. S. Lewis was correct when he thought friendship, along with art, philosophy, and the universe, give value to survival. The development of strong bonds with another individual opens up a portal of potential meaning, to break out of our own egotism and to quote Seneca again, “In order to have someone for whom I may die, whom I may follow into exile, against whose death I may stake my own life, and pay the pledge, too.”
Our current predicament of general isolation may be just the opportunity our twenty-first century, industrialized culture needs. Maybe we do not need to travel at every opportunity (as it signals an unsteady mind). Perhaps we do not need to spend time with large numbers of strangers to enjoy our favorite music. Maybe we do not need that new shirt to impress people we do not know. Maybe we get to stop seeing the world as an endless stream of distractions and finally reconnect with the critical relational aspects of our life that make life worth living.
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