Thursday, May 7, 2015

All I Needed to Know About Connection I Learned from My Dog

It was cool fall evening, and I decided I would take my old hound dog, Calvin, for a walk up the street and back before sunset. Calvin was getting up in years - he had just turned 15, and his arthritis was progressing so bad that the anti-inflammatory medication he’d been on for the last 7 years was starting to no longer work. Still, and probably because of this, I pushed him to keep moving (within his ability, of course) so that he could maintain the highest quality of life as possible for as long as possible. 

I’d had Calvin since he was 6 weeks old. I had just moved into my first apartment away from my parent’s house when a man was giving away puppies outside of the photo lab where I worked. Hearing there were puppies outside, I decided to take my break and go look. Calvin was nestled in a little girl’s arms - a tiny brown pup with a black cap on his head, he wasn't any larger than a tissue box. I asked the girl if I could see him, and as soon as I picked him up I knew he was coming home with me (in retrospect I probably should have asked my roommates first, but luckily they were just as excited as I was). I brought him inside and placed him in a box in the back room until my shift ended. From that moment on it was Calvin and me, a constant companion who made a new life out on my own seem comfortable and familiar.

Fast forward 15 years, after 3 apartments and 4 roommates, college, various jobs, and now with a house and a husband, one constant remained: it was still Calvin and me. We’d grown up together, and in his case, old together. His muzzle and face had turned white with age, and his back bowed under the weight of his belly. I knew it was hard for him to get up and get going, but I also knew that once he did he’d be a happy dog. A cool breeze greeted us just as Calvin started to get into his rhythm and trot, albeit slowly, up the hill. He turned his head and looked back at me with those big brown eyes and his open-mouthed dog smile, as if to say “I love this - thanks, mom.” It was at that moment when our eyes met that everything became clear for a moment, and I thought “this is what life is about.” I was so happy in that moment, as I consciously recognized that the connection Calvin and I had was special. It brought me immense and immeasurable joy, and no doubt it brought him joy also. Over the past 15 years we’d established this connection where, with a glance, I knew what he wanted, and he knew what I wanted. We were so in tune, we knew exactly how each other felt at any given time. I felt grateful to have this type of connection, even though I knew it wouldn't last forever. Slowing to a stop, Calvin turned around, panting. It was time to head home - he could no longer walk the entire length of the street. I knew that I wouldn't have my Calvin for much longer, and I speculated that this could be his last walk. He wasn't exactly dying, but I was aware of his age and the increased rate at which he seemed to be slowing down. As a floundering writer who’d been picking up and putting down topic after topic for the last 5 years, I knew right then that I had to write about connection, I knew I wanted to share this story with you, and I knew I would dedicate any writing I did about the topic to Calvin.

Indeed this was the last walk up our street that Calvin ever had. He passed away just 4 months later. While it was one of the most difficult times in my life, I knew I had to keep the promise I made to myself that day and write about connection.

It’s my hope that by shining a light on connection - something already familiar to us all (and often taken for granted) - you’ll begin to see how forming and maintaining connections will improve your life and the lives of others. This blog is written as a wake-up call. Despite the advances afforded to us by modern civilization (and no doubt because of them), we seem to be isolating ourselves more and farther away than ever before. It’s only when we realize the importance of connection and consciously create and cultivate connections of our own that we’re realize true happiness and begin to heal the world.

For my best dog, Calvin. Thank you for teaching me that a life shared is more fulfilling and joyous than anything I could ever accomplish on my own. Alone, I am me and you are you, but together we are something greater. If I live 100 more lives after this, I hope you’ll be there with me in each one.  

Monday, May 4, 2015

Our Brains Are Wired to Connect with Kindness: Fear & Hate Are Learned

This weekend a friend’s statement regarding the Baltimore riots that occurred last Monday got picked up by an online media outlet:

“People keep saying ‘How can they burn their own neighborhoods?’

They aren't. These aren't their neighborhoods, it's just where we've put them. If these neighborhood were ‘Theirs’ do you think they'd have liquor stores instead of groceries? Blocks of boarded up homes over a vivacious and proud culture of home ownership? Check cashing shops and predatory pay day loan establishments over community banks? Vacant lots instead of community parks?

They didn't burn down their home. They burnt down their prison.

This is the forgotten generation of a forgotten generation. There is no social network of upward mobility to learn from. There are no jobs to be had. There is no hope or future that they can see from corner to corner. Without hope, without a future... you have nothing to lose. Why NOT riot?

Truly, as we've seen throughout the media, these types of sentiments don’t comprise the majority of the coverage on the Baltimore riots, but they should. Why? Because it’s everyone’s first natural inclination to see other people--all other people--as a reflection of themselves. It’s only when learned thought processes start that we begin to distinguish between “us” and “them”.

In a 2014 article by Athena Staik, Staik discusses brain research by Dr. Marco Iacoboni that asserts we as humans are hard-wired to connect with others in a caring and moral way, and we have our mirror neurons in our brains to thank for that.

Have you ever cried during a movie (or, if you’re me, at a commercial on TV)? The way mirror neurons function can be illustrated by these instances. According to Staik, “Remarkably, [Iacoboni’s] studies show that, by default, the brain sees other people as reflections of ourselves, as if we’re looking at ourselves in a mirror. This explains why when someone smiles, we tend to smile back automatically without really ‘wanting’ to. That’s because it takes more effort not to smile back than to smile.”

She goes on to say:
“Though we can learn to fear and hate, to think of another group as our enemy, left on our own devices, we are wired for empathy, wired to be good and kind to one another...

Dr. Iacoboni points out that dichotomous labels can be used, strategically, to condition the brain to access our otherwise useful ability to categorize, in this case, combined with intense fear, to cause us to feel separate from one another, to experience other human beings as ‘objects,’ that pose threats to us. This disconnects us from our innate ability to empathize with others and experience our natural response to form human connections.”

Staik later presents the results of an experiment that took place during the 2014 election:
“Dr. Iacoboni showed members who defined themselves as either Democrats or Republicans party photographs of candidates. When participants viewed an image of a politician within their party, their mirror neurons fired strongly. They empathized with fellow party members. They could imagine being that politician.

In contrast, when the picture was of the opposition party candidate, an interesting thing happened. At first, the participant's mirror neurons fired. This indicated a natural empathy response occurred at first glance of another human being. When thought patterns activated awareness of affiliation with another party, however, the mirror neuron activity was suppressed.  Thus, for participants of either party, until the learned protective response was activated for the candidate of the other party, the first response was to empathize.”

While always acting on our natural empathy response alone could at times be harmful (imagine a child getting into stranger’s car to help him find a puppy), we've made a habit out of not thinking past our self-imposed rules--those things we've learned and followed that override the signals that come from our mirror neurons. At first, we learn these things from our parents, our teachers, and our peers, and as we get older, there are very few instances where we encounter an environment where it’s safe for us to re-analyze these thought habits. I’ll never forget a phone call I had with my mom my third year of undergrad. We were arguing over religion. Views we had both previously shared were now only the views of my mom, as mine had changed. She told me she wished I’d never went to college. Since then, we've made up and agreed to disagree, but had I not left the environment I’d been in for 18 years, I might not have ever re-evaluated my thought processes for certain things. Now, at 36, I doubt there will be many more, if any, instances where I find myself in an environment that challenges my thoughts as much as going away to college did. This is why it’s of the utmost importance to me that I remain aware, present, and mindful in everyday life. It’s only through self-imposed examination that I’m able to reinforce, clarify, or change my perspective, and I’d like to suggest that this sort of self-examination is something you do too. 

But why do so? Well there’s an added benefit to allowing yourself to stay connected to others who you might otherwise detach from once a thought processes kicks in. According to Staik, “We are wired to feel good when we are good or kind toward others...” Yes, connecting with someone you might not typically go out of your way to connect with makes you feel good. It makes them feel good too, because they feel validation. I personally think this type of connection is of the utmost importance, and it’s something we can all do in great part throughout our daily lives. Let someone in a hurry go ahead of you in line. Offer help to someone you see struggling. Talk to people you encounter in the service industry the way you would talk to your best friend. Make eye contact. Smile. Try to find some common ground even where you assume there is none. Challenge your internal dialogue, stick with that first gut reaction, and see if lingering in that moment of connection with another person challenges or changes your learned response to the situation. Afterword think about the interaction. What did you learn?

All of society’s ills aren't going to be solved by you going out of your comfort zone to connect with another individual, but I do think it’s the first step in beginning to affect real change. Instead of looking away from people and situations that you don’t like, try to put yourself in their place. What might be uncomfortable for a minute will help to break down the walls between “us” and “them”. Only when we are all “us” will change start to take place in physically liberating people (who many don’t even want to acknowledge exist) from their “prisons,” as my friend so aptly put it.

Empathy is not agreeing or disagreeing with what someone does--it's not judgment. Empathy is a natural response, and trying to understand what drives a person to do something and connecting with them on a human level is one small thing we can all do in our daily lives.

One last word of advice: always remain aware, present, and mindful so that you don’t fall prey to the unnecessary hate and fear that is projected in your environment. I’ve tried very hard over the last week to flood Facebook with positive stories and stories with differing perspectives from the typical media outlets so that people who aren’t here in the middle what’s going on can get a more accurate picture that will help influence how they form their beliefs. In the words of Staik: “Now if only our major media and entertainment sources could be persuaded to stop mirroring misleading and harmful depictions of our nature and relationships.”

Friday, May 1, 2015

About This Blog

It's time. Following the unexpected success of my first blog I knew I wanted to do more—to continue to write and to do so more broadly for a wider audience. I knew I had to. Even after Big Derby Girls Don’t Cry, I felt compelled to be a helper through my writing, but in the years after the completion of that blog I struggled to identify how to accomplish this task I felt compelled to undertake. Then, several years ago, it hit me.

From then till now, when I've sat down to try to write on this topic, I've felt overwhelmed with the task of organizing and presenting all the important research and my corresponding thoughts. And then over thinking would get the best of me, and I’d wind up telling myself that I wasn't an expert on this and I wasn't ready to put it out there.   

Truly, I planned to do this differently. To frame this differently. But my life at this moment, my urgency to share what I see as the single most influential and important that thing we can all benefit from and that we all need so much more of right now is at a critical mass. In the last week my city, my beloved Baltimore, has literally torn away from the well-worn thread it’s been hanging onto for so long, and for good reason. While we often do an excellent job at fostering it ourselves in small pockets of our community (as seen evident in the clean-up efforts and other volunteering also over the last week), it’s undoubtedly difficult and literally impossible for hope, health, and happiness to exist in an environment where it’s virtually non-existent in the greater community. The “it” I’m referring to is connection.  

There was a defining moment in my life several years ago where I realized it's all about connection. All of it. Everything. From existence as a whole to everyday life, it’s all about connection. Life thrives when connections are made; and life languishes in disconnection.

I'm still overwhelmed in my attempt to bring justice to the tackling this topic, and I’m still afraid that I’ll fail in doing the best job that I can in being a voice for connection, but seeing my city in such crisis has made me realize that while I may not have all the answers, I have to jump in start working. There is no good time to start. I've realized this more and more over the past week. Life will always be in the way—and maybe that’s what gets us as societies into predicaments like this in the first place.

While this platform isn't intended to be about my city or it’s issues (racism, income inequality, and the unjust treatment of a people by its leaders who are supposed to support and protect), it is about the connections or lack thereof and the repercussions of each that are in part so perfectly illustrated by life before and after the murder of Freddie Gray.  

In the past few years I've spent a great time researching many different aspects of connection: person to person, person to animal, person to nature, and person to a sense of the divine, whatever that may be for an individual. It’s my hope by sharing research on these aspects of connection and their broader application, combined with anecdotes from my own life and stories from the headlines, that you’ll become more aware of how you connect to (or disconnect from) people, places, and things in your own life and how that affects you, others, and your community. In becoming aware of your choices to connect, I hope you’ll start to see how you can live a happier, healthier, and more hopeful life, and I hope you’ll also see how your choices to connect affect those around you. I’m not perfect (far from it), some of my ideas are lofty, and you’re not always going to agree with my personal opinion, but it’s my sincere hope that from this blog you can take one thing that will help you improve your life and the life of someone else. Together, we are fragmented pieces of a whole, but the essence of who we are dances with joy and elation each time we connect.