This article first appeared on Positivepsychologynews.com
There was a practice lockdown at my children’s school yesterday. Although the teachers had explained the procedure in advance, most of the children did end up feeling somewhat insecure.
At the dinner table, my three described their experiences with wide eyes and shaky voices. My youngest curled up next to me as she spoke about hers. “One little boy was crying and saying ‘I want my mommy,’” she said, “and I wanted to do the same.”
More than the descriptions though, were the poignant questions they asked. The “what ifs,” the “whys,” and the global issues that they strained to understand. Often they failed, not because of the complexities, but because of implied obliteration of the most profound emotion we have. In the uncomplicated world of children, empathy grows like weeds. It is the journey through adolescence and the years that follow that capitulate us before external forces, divide us from our inner truth, and turn us into adults gone astray.
I know that my children’s lockdown experience pales in comparison to what millions face every day, a little glimpse of which we see in the refugee crisis. Yet I cannot help but feel very uneasy about the world I’m leaving behind for my children. I think back to my own childhood, and I remember the trusting neighborhood bonds and the strength of community that supported the fragility of the individual being.
What Technology Takes Away
My children haven’t experienced that. They know the impersonal and self-centered worlds of social media where they go looking for comfort and come up empty. We humans are wired to connect, and the polyvagal theory shows that real connection that calms us and makes us resilient does not happen through emojis, xoxoxos, and endless pictures of scrumptious meals. It happens through eye contact, through voice and touch, and through listening and being heard.
For years, I’ve tried to remember that, sometimes successfully, sometimes shockingly as I’ve caught myself with my nose buried deep in my laptop, shouting out to one of my children: “Get off the computer and go spend time with your little sister or something….”
But is Close Connection Enough?
But now I’ve begun to believe that building real connection, although essential, is not enough. The worlds of our children, and increasingly our own, show a trend we cannot ignore. Yes, neighborhoods and small communities are not what they used to be, but there is a larger community taking their places, and the closer we look, the more global we find it to be.
This is perhaps for good reason. Our concept of morality evolved as we learned to come together in tribes and develop compassion for those who were part of our in-group. But we also honed fear and hate for the out-group. This paradox of emotions helped us survive, but in today’s complex and interconnected world, it seems that this very tribal mindset may cause us to unravel unless we expand the size of our in-group.
So yes, we need to grow love, but we need to widen its reach.
Exposing our children and ourselves to history will help us understand the growing reach of our nonzero-sum relationships as we face problems together with people around the globe. We can move beyond the ego that grows in what existential-humanistic psychologist Kirk Schneider calls the polarized mind and experience the awe of belonging to something much larger than our selves. Exposing us to the arts will take us out of the familiar and bring us together as a common humanity, as Oxford scholar Theodore Zeldin writes in his book The Hidden Pleasures of Life. Exposing us all to others will help expand cognitive empathy, one of the most crucial forces of change through our history.
Awe instead of Fear
Exposure has one more benefit. It takes away the most basic and inhibiting emotion we have: fear. For fear grows in uncertainty and forms feedback loops that keep us tied to an ever-shrinking bubble of perceived safety. By opening up to people’s experiences in the past and the present, and with love and appreciation, we’re reminded of the common human soul that silently breathes within humanity’s quilted social fabric. Embracing that soul may be the best gift we give ourselves, our children, and all those we connect with.
Perhaps I don’t need to fear the world I leave behind for my children. Perhaps technology is paving the way for them to come together as a common humanity.
My role is to harness this technology by opening them to a wider world than the one we as children could even dream of, and then exposing them to it in ways that expand their awareness. The wider the connections they build, the greater the chances they’ll stay resilient regardless of the uncertainties that may lie ahead and regardless of whether Mommy is there to hold their little fingers and calm their fearful minds.