"Me" vs. "We" - The Pandemic We Don't See
Over the past six months, I have noticed just how deeply our American society has transformed into a “me”-centric society, instead of a “we”-centric society. Surely this was not the original intention of our country (i.e.: "WE, the people..."), but here we are.
Why does this matter?
It matters for various reasons, but mainly it matters because it's the pandemic we don't see. It has become an insidious disease infecting millions and creating an unstable and unsustainable future. Each of the following segments addresses how we have gotten to where we are and what we can do about it, in this order:
· Our Nature: We are biologically wired for connection and community
· Our Present: We are more disconnected than ever, even with technological advances
· Our Reactivity: Fear-based messaging is not sustainable without continually being increased
· Our World: Nature, by its nature, seeks balance
· Our Future: How we can create and effect positive change
· Our Truth: It will always be “we”
There are numerous different research studies that show that we are “hard-wired for connection.” That’s one of Brené Brown’s favorite phrases actually, and her research has shown it to be true. But we don’t need research to understand what we can see with our own eyes.
If you look back at the entire timeline of the human condition, you will see that we have always been tribal by nature. For me, “tribal” means: group- or community-oriented. Your community could be your family, your faith, your neighborhood, your work, your school, etc. We need to belong. We are, in essence, pack animals, no different than many other mammals.
It is in our biological nature to connect with others and form a group. This is why we find it so disturbing when someone has left the group and becomes a threat to our survival. There’s even an entire class of Personality Disorder that identifies this behavior, because we find it so contradictory to our being. The “Unabomber” was a perfect example of this. His behavior threatened our very existence, because it went directly against our basic need: to belong.
We have examples of our need for belonging throughout history.
So, what changed?
Over the past 100 years or so, with the advent of the industrial age and then the technological age, many people thought machines could replace humans, and in many instances they can. They serve to create more efficient models of production, as well as to reduce harm. For example, the assembly line has streamlined many industries, making them safer, more productive and thereby better providing for our society and our communities. Industry and technology are not the “bad guy” in this scenario.
Instead, if there is to be a “bad guy,” it’s us; or rather, it’s our misguided use of industry and technology. While, I would like to believe that the intentions were always good, I’m not 100% sure that was the case. When profits started coming before people, we began losing our connection.
Instead of working for each other, we started working for “the man” (whoever that may be). Entire communities were created to support something (or someone) outside themselves. Think about all the workers’ towns that were created around the country to support this new way of doing business: from shanty towns around gold mines, to temporary railroad or dam building villages, to workers’ housing in places like Kohler, WI to fill its factories.
For some, this was a step up and out of a worse poverty. For others, it was a departure from living on the land and providing for family and community, because the land had been a) deemed more expensive and therefore had higher taxes (which was unsustainable), and 2) was subsequently purchased by “the man” in order to generate more profit.
These townships could have been places of despair and fear. Instead, however, what we witnessed in the midst of hardship was the birth of community within their confines. It seemed that no matter how difficult life had become, people found connection and belonging—as we do.
And that was how it was through the early 20th century, including two great wars, economic depression, and other massive challenges we experienced mostly together… until it wasn’t.
[I’d like to note here that this perspective does not include, nor is meant to include, the issues of racism and prejudice – that topic is best left to experts, which I am not. I learn from those who are, and do my best to defer to them at all times. This perspective is meant to be a high-altitude view of humanity’s—and more importantly, our Western society’s—progression. Though it is important to note that even when oppressed and enslaved, humans have strived to find a sense of belonging and community with one another, underscoring the basic premise that we are, indeed, hard-wired for connection.]
Sometime after World War II—arguably an event that connected the world in a way we have not seen since, until now—we started to take a different path. Indeed, the majority of our disconnection from each other, and subsequently ourselves, has transpired over the last 50-70 years.
During World War II, we were united for a common cause. In fact, the common cause was twofold: 1) defeat the enemy (authoritarian, fascist, and oppressive regimes determined to wipe out entire races of people), and 2) support our troops and get our soldiers home safely. It seemed that everybody joined in for the cause. From “Victory Gardens” to “Rubber Drives,” neighbors became families. When one person fell, everyone felt it. They joined in in both sorrow and relief… and eventually victory.
However, it was what happened after World War II that changed our society forever. At this point, it might be helpful to juxtapose two very simple reactions between two very similar countries, as it exemplifies the point:
After World War II came to an end, in Great Britain the government voted to create a National Health Service, so that none of its citizens would go without care in the advent of necessity. In the United States, no such service was created. While I have many friends in the UK who regularly disparage their NHS, when I explain to them how things actually work in the United States (including the cost and availability), they pause.
Great Britain certainly experienced a greater direct impact on their soil than we did in the United States. I think it’s for that reason that they knew how important it was to have a “safety net” for their people. In Great Britain, if you get cancer, you won’t lose your home for having medical bills in the hundreds of thousands, nor will you have to file bankruptcy. In the United States, the same is not true. (Yes, even if you have insurance.)
While that is only one example, I think it’s a glaring one. We went from unity to individuality very quickly. After World War II, America took a different path. On the heels of austerity and a decisive victory, we (understandably) chose a path of prosperity. It was a path that started us on our journey toward a “me”-centric society, and much of it can be summed up in two words: Madison Avenue.
With prosperity came consumption, and the advent of the “Ad-Men” of Madison Avenue was when our society really started to move away from connection and community, even though advertising often used both of those ideals… in a back-handed way.
There is a simple truth in the energy world: Fear is a low-vibration energy. As a low-vibration energy, it is not sustainable by itself; it needs constant feeding. In other words, it needs to escalate over time in order to be valid. And what is Madison Avenue based on? Fear.
· Fear of aging
· Fear of not belonging
· Fear of not being good enough
· Fear of not having enough
· Fear of being: too fat, too old, too thin, too young, too brunette, etc.
We’ve even created fun-to-use words and slogans based in fear, such as FOMO: the Fear Of Missing Out.
It all comes back to fear, and the main message in most advertising is: Buy this product so that you will be enough—so that you will belong. They are actually using the biological need to connect and belong to sell products. They’re just doing it through a message of fear.
Now, fear in messaging is not limited to products (anti-aging, low-fat, etc.). Fear is also part of politics. The best (and most horrifying) example of how fear was used in politics comes in the form of Adolf Hitler and Nazi propaganda.
In 2013, my mother and I traveled to Europe and took a river cruise. One of our stops on the cruise was in Nuremburg, where we explored the Nazi Party Rally Grounds. As we walked through the unfinished building (which was an extraordinary sight, and not in a good way), we were taken through the evolution of Adolf Hitler and how the Nazi party came into being through a series of videos and artifacts. It was, at times chilling, and, at times, oddly familiar. In 2020, we can all look back on history and see how very wrong it all was; however, I’m not sure if we were alive in the 20s and 30s, we would be able to say the same.
The propaganda and messaging used by Hitler in the Nazi Party’s evolution is no different than the fear messaging that has created multi-billion-dollar beauty, weight loss, and fashion industries. It’s all about fear: Fear of the “other” or becoming the “other.”
· In advertising, the “other” is: aging, weight, poverty, etc.
· In politics, the “other” is often your neighbor with a different skin color, religion, gender, or sexuality.
Fear of the “other” is the mainstay of all political rhetoric. It creates the single-most important tool a politician* can use: division. For, when there’s division… there’s potential. That potential is what any politician (regardless of party affiliation) needs in order to gain or retain power. [*I say “politician” here because it’s the most prevalent example, but it can also be an: organization, celebrity, author, religious leader, speaker, or anyone of influence, including teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc.]
Of course, there are politicians that aren’t like this, but if you scratch beneath the surface just enough, you’ll usually find “fear-messaging for the purpose of division” at the heart of most campaigns. More importantly, however, if you scratch beneath the surface of lobbying, you’ll find both political fear-messaging as well as advertising fear-messaging.
Why is this important?
It’s important because, as I’ve mentioned, fear is not sustainable by itself. It needs to be continually fed. It needs to be continually escalated to be effective, because, over time, we get desensitized to the threat, so a new threat needs to be created, or at least escalated.
There’s a training tool in psychotherapy called Systematic Desensitization that explains this in action.
When you have someone who has a fear of something, the idea is to slowly, over time, desensitize them to the thing, whether it’s spiders or asking someone on a date. By using systematic desensitization, you condition them to the thing they most fear, until it no longer generates a response. This can be a very effective form of behavioral therapy… and a very destructive form of propaganda and advertising.
When used to gain power (or profit), it can be very dangerous, because it erodes the individual and/or the individual’s will. This eventually erodes a society, and we arrive at a “me”-centric world, instead of our naturally aligned “we”-centric world.
When we no longer put “we” before “me” and make decisions for the good of the whole, we end up with in-fighting, blame, shame, aggression, and any number of other problems. Fear creates division, which creates disconnection, which ultimately results in a cognitive dissonance so severe that “truth” no longer exists because it can’t. Everything becomes perception, because it has to.
In order for an individual to survive in this type of “me”-centric world, their “perception” has to be 100% correct (meaning: “true”), with no room for any other opinion. The minute that starts to fall apart, their very existence comes into question, and the one biological drive we have that is greater than connection is: existence.
So, as a result, we become a reactive, protective, divided, and disconnected society. We feel we no longer have a tribe we can rely on, so we only rely on ourselves. Where we cross paths with another who “sounds” like we could connect, we latch on without scratching beneath the surface. Their “truth” becomes our “truth,” and we dig our heels in deeper to avoid experiencing cognitive dissonance.
With the advent of social media, our disconnection has grown exponentially in the last decade. Ironically, something that was built to create more connection has, for the most part, created more division and isolation. We are, as a whole, more disconnected now than we ever have been.
And it shows.
There was a time when we used to live in harmony with the world around us, in small tribes and villages. It’s actually not that long ago, and there are still some who carry that knowledge and wisdom. Thankfully, they are still willing to share it and teach others. This wisdom used to be inherent in how we all lived our lives, because we depended on it for our survival.
My grandparents bought a vacation home in Vermont in the 1970s, and I still remember the smell of the basement. The house was a “saltbox” style built in the 1700s and it had a dirt floor basement with stone walls. It smelled of earth, because it was earth. In essence, it was a root cellar, and it was filled with old glass bottles and jars. These were items that we simply didn’t care about then, but would be worth a small fortune on the “vintage” market today.
It seems we must all be feeling a bit nostalgic lately, as the “vintage” industry has soared in recent years. I think however, it’s because we are craving “simpler times,” because of how disconnected we actually are. We’re reaching out for anything that feels familiar, but especially items that we can use to remember times of connection, or touchstones.
That basement reminds me of what people used to know. We used to know how to live with the seasons. We used to have “kitchen gardens” that spoiled us through the lush months of summer, and sustained us as canned and preserved food in the darkest days of winter. Now, we have 24/7 warehouse-sized grocery stores where fresh raspberries are imported in January, even though they used to only be available in August and September.
Of course, this is progress that feels good, because it feeds a global population that has doubled in size in the last few decades. It’s a type of progress that we want to enjoy and celebrate. I mean, who doesn’t love being able to eat fresh fruit in January with two feet of snow outside?
But there’s a price to pay for this kind of disconnection from nature.
When I recently learned that 40% of fresh food in grocery stores, or produce from farms, is often destroyed, I reflexively shook my head in disbelief. The food waste problem is so severe and vast it has created a brand new industry: imperfect produce. This means that there is enough food being wasted that an entire industry can be created from the waste.
How can this be?
Well, it comes back to fear again and desensitization, although this time in the reverse. Through marketing, we have actually become sensitized to the “correct” shape of a tomato, so much so that we now have a label for any tomato that doesn’t measure up: “imperfect.”
Our consumption has been sensitized in such a way that we think it’s “okay” to lay waste to nearly half of our food. Not only have we lost touch with nature, we’ve lost touch with our sanity. And I’m not pointing fingers, I’m right there with everybody else, because I’ve been raised in the same society. I have preferences for my produce, and I have a few “anti-aging creams” in my medicine cabinet. Thankfully, though, as I’ve raised my awareness to this systemic issue, I’ve been slowly converting my life to one that is more deliberate, instead of one that is simply ‘living by default.’
By being deliberate, I can show up differently and reclaim my free will. My social media is a source of wonderful soul-enriching connection…because I made it so. My makeup bag can be streamlined to 3 or 4 items when I travel… because I made it so. And my food consumption is a work in progress, where I do my best to purchase without plastic and not waste. I’m working on getting better.
I’m working on it, because I see the writing on the wall. We don’t need people like Sir David Attenborough (whom I love) to warn us of the impending doom climate change is bringing. We don’t need it, because it’s already here. We can see it all around us on a daily basis:
· Litter by the side of the road
· Images of sea horses wrapping their tails around a Q-tip
· Stronger and more frequent global storms and natural events
· Truckloads of garbage every week filling dumps and incinerators
· Seemingly unlimited consumption and production—a never-ending need for “more”
· Natural areas being laid to waste by pollution
Now, I grew up in the New York City of the 70s and 80s. It was not a clean place. I remember a lot of fear for our safety as we walked the streets that often stank of urine and garbage. The New York of today is a far cry from the New York of 40 years ago. We have made progress.
I also remember traveling to visit family in Mexico in the 80s, and the smog that enveloped the city, as well as the stories on the news of the smog in Los Angeles or the “acid rain” that we needed to worry about as we wore acid-washed jeans. We have made huge strides in containing our pollution and improving our standards.
But not all countries have agreed, and the biggest evidence of the impact of disagreement came when we went into lockdown from the global pandemic earlier this year. Within weeks, skies cleared and people breathed more easily in Asian cities. Waterways, too, ran clearer than they have in decades, and on some level, it felt like the earth itself was breathing again.
For some, like me, it was a time of peace—a respite from the “busy” of the world around me. However, global lockdown was emotionally challenging for many people simply because it was so contrary to how we have been collectively living. It caused confusion, fear, and anxiety.
But lockdown also did something else: it removed ALL of the remaining physical connections in our lives. Suddenly, we were thrown into a situation where the only form of connection we had was virtual, and for the first time we were reminded of how important real connection actually was.
Alas, for some people it became an opportunity to reset, redefine the priorities in their lives, and choose a different future, while for others, whose fear-based conditioning was so deep, it became an opportunity to double-down on their resolve in isolation, as if the lack of connection somehow validated their conditioned beliefs.
Those were two extremes. In general, how you responded to lockdown landed somewhere on a spectrum from complete discomfort, fear, and anger, to quiet serenity and peace. Regardless of where you land, there were two ways in which we all shared in this global experience:
· The virus affected every country, and
· The shutdown positively affected nature.
Whether you lived in Argentina or India, Singapore or South London, nature was positively affected by a majority of humans staying home.
Now, I’m not a scientist, but I don’t think it takes a scientist to see just how quickly nature stepped in to rebalance. I wrote a children’s book about it, because I think it was one of the most beautifully unexpected results of the pandemic.
I also felt it was an opportunity to pause and reflect. There are many scientists who say we are past the “tipping point” for our world. However, I think we all witnessed just how quickly and easily nature will help us rebalance, if we let it. If we give it room, and if we make different choices, nature will show up, because it’s what it knows how to do.
In speaking this way, I realize that I am separating “humans” from “nature,” which is inaccurate. We are part of nature, overall, but for the purpose of discussion, it seems important at this time to delineate the two, since we have different roles to play.
Collectively, we have a choice to make. But because we are so far down the rabbit hole of “me,” it may not be easy. At least not for some. The choice we have to make is simple, it’s the enacting that’s hard (though I have a potential solution for that). Here’s the question:
Do we choose to be part of the whole, or separate from it?
I can already hear grumblings of push-back on that question alone:
· Which “whole?”
· Whose “whole?”
· Can I still do what I want to do?
· Do I have to sacrifice something? If so, what?
· I don’t think I should have to support someone who’s lazy.
· My dollars aren’t going to go to anything I don’t believe in.
· I think this is all baloney; we’re all fine.
In truth, I can imagine that and much more/worse. It’s my job to study human nature and to help people. I have spent two decades learning from many different schools of thought (Western, Eastern, esoteric, traditional, native, religious, spiritual, medical/wellness, etc.), and they all arrive at one simple conclusion:
You have free will, and you are not an island.
In other words, you can make any choice you want, but all of your choices have a ripple effect on everything and everyone else. No choice made in isolation remains in isolation.
So, the question remains, though I will rephrase it:
Since you are inextricably part of the whole, what will you choose?
Your answer directly affects your future. It also affects my future, and the future of every other person on this beautiful living rock floating in space. You may not always see the direct results of your choices, but they exist, which brings me back to something I said earlier:
I am a work in progress.
This is important because I think even the well-meaning among us create division unintentionally when they espouse some measure of perfection. Everyone is a work in progress. I think it’s important to make small changes over time, because they are sustainable and lasting.
As such, we each have to decide what those small changes may be. For me, one thing I chose to do is to no longer use a plastic bag at the grocery store for any of my produce. If I forget my reusable bags, I simply put the item in my cart. I’m going to wash it later anyway. It’s a small decision, but it’s an empowered and deliberate decision. And after a little effort, it quickly became habit.
You, too, are a work in progress. There is no expectation of perfection. There is only an expectation of understanding: understanding that you are not alone in this world and the choices you make affect the whole.
Living deliberately, through choice, is the best way to create a future in which we can all thrive. It removes the division of “me vs. you” or “us vs. them” and restores balance to humanity. It can, in a single generation, turn the tide on the destruction we have created. Destruction of connection, destruction of ecosystems, and destruction of nature.
I said earlier that I have a potential solution for when it gets hard to make a different choice. It’s this:
Think of someone you love. Think of someone you love above all else, not in a codependently-longing way, but in a genuine “I-would-take-a-bullet-for-this-person/animal” way. Now, ask yourself: “What can I do that will make this place/day/situation/world better for them?” That’s it. It’s about making decisions—every decision—in a way that supports, helps, or simply makes life better for someone you love. By doing this, you are allowing someone to do the same for you. More importantly, you will be restoring connection, which is in your nature.
If you need another way to look at it, try this:
· Decisions made in fear are not sustainable and not aligned with your biological needs. They will always require more energy form you, more effort, and more maintenance, until you no longer recognize yourself.
· Decisions made from love are sustainable and aligned with your biological needs. They require little of you, other than your presence at the moment of decision. They will always bring you back to yourself.
Our future depends on how connected—truly connected—we are, or are willing to be. Our health, the health of our loved ones, and the health of our planet all depend on our willingness to accept our role in our evolution of disconnection as well as our willingness to repair the damage.
I was talking with a colleague the other day as we were discussing my children’s book about the animals. He said something like: the book was a “good reminder that we are part of the ecosystem, even if we are at the top.” I stopped him and said, “But we’re not at the top. We never have been.” I went on to explain:
Years ago, I had seen a photographer’s time-lapse photos of an old building by a roadside slowly being reclaimed by nature. I wish I could find it again, but I haven’t been that lucky. This may have been the early 2000s or a bit later, so I was not as save-happy as I am today. As I watched this 2-minute video, something hit me: