I try to be unbiased and non-political in this space; to share some advice and information that I have found helpful; to use a thoughtful but humorous approach to parenting, marriage, life. But I have to admit, I have been having a hard time writing recently, trying to stay neutral and lighthearted in the current environment of marches and protests and movements and Twitter threads and hashtags. Where so many seem to be running in high gear, wound up, ready to spring, one straw away from a broken back.
Where anger is so quickly triggered by the most minor of comments or “offenses.” Where “all about me” thinking is driving disrespectful and hurtful behavior, where mouths and fists are at the ready to react, defend, debate and ears are closed to listening.
Research repeatedly shows that the main driver of human happiness and mental health is social connection, so I’m not sure why our culture seems so eager to sever all ties. Of course, some may argue that we are more connected than any other time in history through the internet and social media.
Mark Zuckerberg spouts an ideal vision of Facebook (current legal issues notwithstanding) as a tool to increase empathy for others through connectedness. Perhaps we are more attuned to the lives of others we would normally not see. But the Facebook connection process seems to use people’s preferences to connect them with the like-minded, often to the exclusion of other viewpoints. So does it increase empathy only for those people and ideas to which one is already attuned? In addition, the platform on which we use this media certainly enables disconnection offline as much as it offers connection online. That can’t be ignored.
Research also indicates that humans have an innate bias towards protecting our own “family,” however we define that. But what if we are all family? In his most recent book, “It’s All Relative,” author A.J. Jacobs asks just that as he attempts to connect the entire world population through DNA and trace our ancestry back to a common relative. Why does he embark on this quest? Because, he reasons, “… maybe, just maybe the World Family Tree will urge us to treat our distant cousins a little more kindly. Or at least less awfully.”
Jacobs travels extensively to speak with renowned genealogists about the “World Family Tree” already under construction (and always growing) and joins in with all sorts of family reunions (including the largest in the U.S with the Lilly family of West Virginia) and conventions (cousins who marry, twins, polyamorous families), even a joint reunion of Hatfields and McCoys! He finds his personal connections to the famous, the infamous, even his own wife, and photographs celebrities and average Joes of all races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic classes holding “I Am A Cousin” signs as a visual symbol of our universal connection. He eventually hosts a Global Family Reunion at the New York Hall of Science at the site of the 1964 World’s Fair (you know, the place with the giant globe), which is attended by a variety of representatives from his immediate family and the many “cousins” he meets along the way.
Jacobs learns that we ARE all connected and can trace our heritage back to common ancestors in Africa about 200,000 years ago. You’ll have to read the book for the scientific details, but the takeaway is clear. We are family. (Yes, he had Sister Sledge sing at the Global Family Reunion.)
One visual from Jacob’s book that stays with me is his recounting of a story from “Invisible Cities” by mid-twentieth-century Italian author Italo Calvino which tells of a city where people’s apartments are connected by different color threads representing their relationships: black threads for blood relatives, white threads for business connections, etc. Eventually, there are so many threads of so many different colors representing all the interconnectivity that you can’t walk through the city.
Calvino’s story illustrates another quote featured by Jacobs from 19th century Anglican priest Henry Melvill: “We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.”
Consider all the different ways you are connected with those you know, and those you may not know. Family — close, distant, in-laws. From the same town, college, company, state, region, country. The same interests, the same pets, the same friends, the same talents, so many more “sames” than I can list here. So many more sames than differences.
Jacobs sums it up like this, “A single thread may not mean much. It may seem random and inconsequential. But millions of threads? When I see the world as a dense thicket of multicolored threads, it makes it harder for me to be a self-involved island…..It makes me feel less angry and alone. Even if I had the wherewithal or athletic ability to punch someone in the jaw, I imagine my arm would get all tangled up in multi-colored threads.”
Let that sink in. Imagine the world as a loom, crisscrossed with connections of every color, no space for even your pinky finger to touch without at least grazing someone connected to you. How would you behave if you knew everyone around you was family? Because they are.
Rebecca Martorella, LMFT, welcomes ideas and comments and can be reached at [email protected]