I read three books recently that couldn’t have been more different, and yet got me thinking the same thing – that humans are meant to be social, cooperative creatures and that – despite making us appear strong – our individual independence is hurting us deeply.
The first book was Anxious People by Frederik Backman. Well-written, quirky, and charming, it tells the story of a bank robbery gone horribly wrong. The bank robber ends up accidentally holding an entire apartment full of prospective buyers hostage, and throughout the book we learn a lot about each hostage and the interconnectedness of their lives. We realize that many of them were silently suffering, afraid to ask for help or appear imperfect and needy. The bank robber ends up in a terrible situation that could have been largely avoided if they had only been honest and vulnerable with someone and asked for a little help.
The second book was The Lost Man by Jane Harper. This murder mystery is set in the Australian outback (a harsher living environment would be hard to imagine!) and was a good, suspenseful read. And again, and I set the book down on my lap after turning over the last page, my first thought was – that whole, terrible situation could have been completely avoided if only people had spoken openly with each other! If only everyone didn’t assume that others were judging them or falsely assign motives that don’t exist to the people in their lives!
I myself am a very open person – obviously I write my deep, personal thoughts in a blog for all the interwebs to read – and have a hard time understanding private people. I do respect the fact that not everyone is comfortable opening up as quickly as I am (I am Midwestern – we can make a new friend while waiting at a bus stop), and I respect personal and emotional boundaries. However, I think a lot of suffering could be avoided if only people had the courage to be vulnerable and open up to even one other person about their struggles.
So many of us are so preoccupied with what we think others are thinking about us, when in reality others aren’t thinking about us much at all! Even before social media came around with its filters and highlight reels making life appear beautiful and glamorous all the time, we still compared and competed to “keep up with the Joneses,” without realizing that the Jones’s marriage was falling apart and their kids were unhappy and why do we want to be like them anyway??
The third book I just finished that solidified my belief that humans are meant to be social, community-driven creatures was First Steps by Jeremy DeSilva. This book attempts to answer the question of when and why our ancestors first started walking. The author is a paleoanthropologist, so the book deep dives into early human and pre-human history, looking at all kinds of fossils and evidence of our origins. We, as homo sapiens, are not the first mammal to walk on two feet, but we and our predecessors (Neanderthals and the like) would have been tiger food if not for the fact that we were social. We are slow, relatively small, and not equipped with great physical offense or defense (no tough shells or large claws). Our babies are entirely helpless for the first year or so of life, making us rely on helpful aunties and cousins to guard the babies while Mama climbed up the tree for food. Giving birth itself is a forced community event because of the inherent danger that comes from childbirth in creatures like us that walk on two feet. The shape of our pelvis is well-suited for walking, but makes labor risky for mom and baby alike and required assistance from the very beginning. By walking on only two feet, we are very vulnerable to injuries making us even easier prey. There is evidence dating way back in the fossil record of pre-human creatures surviving life-threatening injuries (significant damage to bones, head injuries, even tumors that showed evidence of recovery and a continued life span)– something that would only have been possible with care and assistance from a cooperative community looking out for each other.
The lie of independence, of self-reliance, of the self-made man threatens one of the very things that makes us human. Isolationism, tribalism, fierce independence – these things make us weak, not strong. It is not a sign of strength to bear all your burdens by yourself. It is not a sign of strength to withhold your fears and doubts from those you love in an effort to put on a show or protect them from your reality. As the life-long work of Brené Brown keeps proving to us in the research over and over again – vulnerability is strength.
“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”
But it does take courage. It’s hard to open up to someone, even a dearly loved friend or family member, without knowing how they will react. Without knowing if they will be gentle with your pain, your fears, your worry. And too often we don’t react well. Too many times we jump in to fix things, or smooth it all over, or offer empty platitudes, preferring the lie of comfort and ease to the reality that life is full of suffering. It is hard to look pain in the eye – whether ours or someone else’s. But pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t solve anything either.
It isn’t pleasant to be honest when things are hard. It’s scary to ask for help when you don’t know how someone will respond. But when we are lucky enough to have people who truly care, who see us at our best and our worst and love us the same, then they can help share the burden. Their presence, their care, and possibly their actual resources or aid can lighten our load. They may know information that can completely improve our situation, or have a connection to someone who would be the perfect resource. They may have suffered similarly and could offer a sympathetic ear and shoulder to cry on, making us feel less alone in our pain. They may simply stick around and be with us in our suffering, their loving presence itself a balm to the pain.
In 2015, I suffered a partial molar pregnancy, which required emergency surgery. It was shocking, confusing, deeply disappointing after thinking we had successfully gotten pregnant, and a grievous experience. There was a risk it could develop into cancer which hung over our heads for months after my surgery. There were unknown timelines about when we could safely try to conceive again. And I am SO GRATEFUL that we had told our closest friends and family about the pregnancy before it all went to hell. They showed up with care, encouragement, meals, massages – support. Many women told me stories of similar experiences they had suffered, making me feel less alone, broken, or defective. Our people got us through a very difficult time feeling seen, cared for, and loved.
To all the private people reading this – those who keep their stuff close to their chest and go it alone – I am not saying that you need to air your dirty laundry for all the world to see, or to unload your problems on everyone you meet. Again, I respect personal and emotional boundaries. But I would encourage you to find one trusted person. One person with whom you could be real, be honest, be open and vulnerable, be human. One person to be in your tribe, to watch out for predators while you look for food. It can literally be the difference between life and death.