I keep forgetting that there’s a pandemic. Not that I need to wear a mask and socially distance. That’s in my bones now. But that I’m starving for human contact. That this isn’t normal.
This forgetting often comes in a familiar form: self-criticism.
I beat myself up inside for feeling lonely during the pandemic. I think things like, I should be handling this better. Or, I should be writing the next great American novel. Or, I shouldn’t be on social media so much.
But tens of millions of years of social connection are wired into my nervous system. So much so that the author Yuval Noah Harari argues it’s been essential for the survival of the human species.
“It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bisons,” he writes. “It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest and who is a cheat.”
The psychologist Matthew Lieberman says, “Mammals are more socially connected than reptiles, primates more than other mammals, and humans more than other primates.”
Our brains are supercomputers for knowing and remembering others. A 2005 study found that a single neuron in the brain was activated when people saw pictures of the actress Halle Berry, but that it failed to do so for other famous faces.
It all starts in the womb. When a pregnant mom is stressed or anxious or depressed, her baby’s developing brain is flooded with the same neurochemicals. Like mother, like child.
The children of women suffering from PTSD while pregnant during the 9/11 attacks, for example, were found to have abnormal stress hormone levels at one year of age.
Even if your mom didn’t suffer from PTSD, your kid brain was shaped by how your parents and other adults related to you.
“You can have childhoods were no overt trauma occurs,” says physician and addiction expert Gabor Maté. “But when the parents are just too distracted, too stressed to provide the necessary responsiveness, that can also traumatize the child.”
In other words, as a species, we’ve needed healthy connection to survive. And as individuals, we need it to thrive.
It’s so easy to forget all of this in a capitalist society. We’re told that if we work hard enough, one day we’ll have the life we’ve always wanted. That it’s on us — and us alone — to overcome our problems.
“There is no such thing as society,” once said Britain’s first female prime minister Margaret Thatcher, one of the most cold-blooded capitalist politicians who ever lived. “There are individual men and women and there are families.”
Just look at the commercials during the recent Superbowl. There was Dolly Parton remixing her hit “9–5” into “5–9,” with lyrics about having a side hustle: “Working 5 to 9, making something of your own now.” There was a swimmer who overcame her disability to become a 13-time Paralympic gold medalist. There was Bruce Springsteen driving around the desert, through small towns, in a city, with no other humans in sight.
But there are other ways of being. Other ways of organizing a society. Ways of honoring our need for connection.
A Canadian First Nations tradition, as just one example, says that when a woman is pregnant, no one who is angry or stressed is allowed in her presence until they’ve calmed down
I just need to keep reminding myself: This isn’t normal. And capitalism isn’t either.
I’m a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. My weekly email newsletter helps you bring mindfulness to work, relationships, and politics. Subscribe here.