“This Conversation Impacts 40,000 People”

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I found this image here.

Quite frequently, the news feels daunting. Very often, we’re concerned that national discourse and policy are harming our loved ones and our neighbors. At times, we are frustrated personally with our friends and family members, and we’re already anticipating what the holidays might feel like this year.

All of this is true.

And without negating any of it, I find myself reflecting on a hopeful thought that was expressed last night in community.

The Michigan Nones and Dones community held an event last night called “Support in Times of Collective Stress.” We opened space for people to name stressors in their personal lives and in our larger, collective experience. We asked ourselves, which convictions, spiritual practices, and wisdom keep us grounded and centered internally? And we considered the ways that connection and community-belonging can ease our stress and move us toward collective change.

At one point, I recalled something I had read years ago, and I shared it with the group, thinking that it might illuminate the ways that stress and health can both move through relationships. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler are social scientists who wrote a book called, Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How they Shape Our Lives  In the book, Christakis and Fowler conduct intriguing scientific research on social networks to discover how they connect us and affect us. And through a number of studies, they concluded,

On average, each person on the planet consistently affects 8,000 people every day.

Christakis and Fowler have discovered that on average, each person knows twenty people well enough to invite them to a dinner party. If those friends then know twenty people to the same degree, and then those friends know twenty people to the same degree, we are talking about 20 x 20 x 20 = 8,000 people.

We are relationally connected and deeply embedded in these relationships. Their research revealed that we affect and are affected by our friends’ friends’ friends in social and emotional contagions. Even if we don’t directly know these people three degrees away, we are consistently impacting each other every single day of our lives. That’s astonishing.

Christakis and Fowler discuss the ways that our actions, thoughts, and emotions impact others. When we feel joy, calm, stress, or anxiety, we often pass our emotions to one another in contagion. Sometimes, this happens as quickly and simply as seeing someone’s facial expression. The mirror neurons in our brains fire to make a similar facial expression, and then we feel a similar emotion too. This can happen with fear. It can also happen with a smile. These are truly contagious.

So if each of us has the ability to impact a social network as large as 8,000 people pretty unconsciously, what is possible if we consider this consciously? And what is then possible then when whole communities are acting? And beyond mere feelings (though they are important) how can can we positively affect our social network with acts of compassion, advocacy, and solidarity? What is possible when we choose wellness? What is possible when these connections move toward collective change?

After talking more about stress, personal practices, stories, and convictions, we circled back to this thought at the end. Gathered around a table as five people, we realized,

“This conversation impacts 40,000 people.”

We are facing large, looming challenges, and some people are more directly-impacted by those challenges than others. This is true and worthy of our grief and anger.

And at the same time, I hold out hope that collective change is possible. It’s always possible, and it happens through relationships.

Renee Roederer

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