We spend a great deal of our energy on fitting in. While insecurity and ego are sometimes part of this effort, it’s inappropriate to think of “fitting in” as a weakness or a crutch. The drive to connect is built into the essence of being human. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk in his (one of the best I’ve read in the last five years) book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” says
“Our culture teaches us to focus on personal uniqueness, but at a deeper level, we barely exist as individual organisms. Our brains are built to help us function as members of a tribe. We are part of that tribe even when we are by ourselves, whether listening to music (that other people created), watching a basketball game on television (our own muscles tensing as the players run and jump) or preparing a spreadsheet for a sales meeting (anticipating the boss’s reactions). Most of our energy is devoted to connecting with others.”
If we do not exist as individual organisms, perhaps we, as connected individuals, are better defined as a superorganism. A collective in which the individual parts cannot be understood separate from the others. Humans are mammals, we grow, survive and thrive in groups. We are conceived through connection, grown in the womb through placental connection and are held as babies to maintain that connection. We have neural cells and synaptic connections that host our ability to “read” and respond to others according to our perception of their connection to us. These are called mirror neurons and develop to help us maintain connection in more sophisticated ways as our contribution to our community matures. But our need for connection does not decrease.
This sheds light on the damage our hyper-individualistic focus does to the youngest members of our tribe. Pre-wired for connection, we deny their basic human drive for belonging and meaning when we define autonomy as a separation rather than our contextual capacity. Independence is useful when we consider the value of learning to feed ourselves, use toilets, read, write and drive a car. Problem solving is useful and our learned individual capacity moves us into a realm where we can add our perspective to problem solving as a group. Independence is not meant to increase our capacity until we can manage our circumstances alone. Alone is not practical, healthy or good except in appropriate doses.
A superorganism can be defined as "a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective." At this point in our story, the phenomena we need to focus on is behaving like a superorganism.
Our young are among the most susceptible to cultural illness. Their psychological and social immune systems are more vulnerable to disconnection. Their state of internal and social homeostasis relies on significant input from caregivers and social connections. Our over-valuation of independence has created a cultural crisis. Our young are showing us that this is true. Their increased damage from adversity, the statistics on anxiety, depression, suicide, truancy, substance abuse, and etcetera are clear warnings that we are ill on a cultural level.
Not only has our hyper-individuality created separation when our young need connection, it has modeled for them the exact opposite of the thinking and behavior that will repair the mistake. We have taken away what they need as well as the tools to get it back.
The solution is not that complicated. We do what we need. We connect. Not only with them but with each other. We stop pretending we are the lone wolf (wolves are pack animals anyway), Marlboro man (someone else grew that tobacco), bootstrapped bad ass and start acting like we need each other. If there are 100 parts to an organism and each of us is one part (I’m just simplifying the math here), then we are “needing” from 99 parts and contributing one. It does not reduce us to need, it increases us to receive. There is no shame in needing - there is shame in needing and pretending otherwise. There is shame and destruction there.
We have the capacity, in concert, to produce phenomenon. Let’s do that. Let’s see what happens to our kids when we provide the rich soil of connectedness for them to grow in. We can watch suicide statistics drop, see our kids internalize their stories of strength, become rooted in hope and resistant to despair. We will watch as innovation increases, marginalization decreases and mental, emotional and behavioral health improves dramatically.
This is a paradigm shift that happens in each of us internally when we decide against separation and for connection. When we embrace the humility required to experience the relief of our need for relationship being met. It happens in the quiet, when we look into the mirror and recognize the ache in our souls and do not turn from it. It grows in us when we stop expending energy to resist and rest instead.
We all want to connect. Let’s just do it.
The 2009 study by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, “Preventing Mental, Emotional and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People: Progress and Possibilities,” urges an important action.
Here is an excerpt from the preface:
“This report calls on the nation - its leaders, its mental health research and service provision agencies, its schools, its primary care medical systems, its community-based organizations, its child welfare and criminal justice systems - to make prevention of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders and the promotion of mental health of young people a very high priority. By all realistic measures, no such priority exists today…
...Mental, emotional and behavioral disorders incur high psychological and economic costs for the young people who experience them, for their families and for the society in which they live, study, and will work. Yet there is significant imbalance in the nation’s efforts to address such disorders. People await their emergence and then attempt to treat them, to cure them if possible, or to limit the damage they cause if not. This happens with any number of expensive interventions, ranging from psychiatric care to incarceration. Myopically, we devote minimal attention to preventing future disorders or the environmental exposures that increase risk.”
This indictment has a bit of a sting to it. Unfortunately, while in our community(s), there are heroic efforts being made, we still focus most of our efforts on crisis response.
I tell a story to volunteers at the beginning of an Adult Advisor Sources of Strength training. It goes like this. Once there was a woman who lived in a village not far from a beautiful waterfall. Every day, she would walk in the woods by the river, enjoying its beauty and peace. One day, while she was taking her usual walk, she heard someone in the water calling for help. She went to the shore and saw a young person about to go over the falls. She jumped in and pulled him to safety.
The next day, on her walk, the same thing happened. But this time, just as she finished her rescue, she heard another voice and had to jump back in the water. It became a regular feature of her walk and the numbers increased weekly. Soon, instead of a peaceful walk in the woods, she led the townsfolk in building systems to save kids from going over the falls. Many were saved. Some were not. No matter how hard they tried, some kids went over the falls.
One day, in the midst of their furious and heroic efforts, she left and began walking up stream. Her partner lifesavers called to her incredulously, “Where are you going? We have urgent work to do here, you can’t leave!”
She replied, “I’m going upstream to see if I can keep kids from falling into the water.”
Her perspective mirrors the one in the excerpt above. Prevention work and promotion work will eliminate a lot of downstream work. Of course we need to respond well to kids in crisis. But if we don’t address causes, we will never reduce the numbers of kids in crisis. The numbers will go up. It is healthy, resilient kids who stay out of the water or can swim to shore before the falls. We need to invest ourselves in systems that grow crisis resistant youth.
As the 2009 report says, this work is done in many places. Leadership, schools and community-based organizations are three places where we have influence. Study after study has shown that the most powerful prevention efforts are based on the presence of Caring Adults in the lives of kids. While we have excellent teachers and school staff, good leadership and effective community-based organizations - we simply do not have enough involved adults. Our ratio is not up to the task. The impact of a Caring Adult happens in the context of relationship. When a young person feels safe, known and important, the majority of mental, emotional and behavioral issues subside.
We need to mobilize a network of Caring Adults.
Since we already have systems in place where our kids are welcomed and expected, what we need is collaboration between organizations and individuals to increase the ratio of kids to adults by adding more adults who have tools and capacity to share healthy relationship. We need more volunteers from our community. If we get them we can improve the mental, emotional and behavioral health of our kids. If we don’t things will get worse. It’s that simple. We need to show up in our kids lives as a community.