A New Year's Message

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A New Year's Message

I have been thinking about what unites us, what divides us and remedies for us. Adding to that topic I am struck by the comment of our surgeon general Vivek Murthy who believes that the greatest threat to our country is pervasive loneliness.

After watching a 60 Minutes program about a colony of Rhesus monkeys who live on a desolate island off Puerto Rico, I envisioned a possible remedy. A hurricane hit the island and devastated the monkey's habitat. Surprisingly, the death toll was very low, compared to the death rate of the people who lived on the nearby island of Puerto Rico. The surviving monkeys had to adapt to a totally new environment. The scientists who studied the monkeys observed that the monkeys bonded together into different support groups each with a distinct division of labor. The monkeys pulled it together individually and as a group, in ways which did not exist before the disaster. The human inhabitants of Puerto Rico are still fighting amongst themselves with little progress to restoring what they had. I also learned that Rhesus monkeys and humans share 94 percent of their DNA. So why did the monkeys succeed to a greater extent than the humans? To what extent can monkey adaptive behavior be applied to people?

Humans are, by their nature, social animals, they thrive in groups or communities and do not fare well in isolation. Yes, there are humans who live alone quite successfully as hermits, but for the most part, most of us do better in groups. There is an ill-defined, societal glue which binds a successful group. Society is a uniting feature. The group or society may gather round for safety, food supply, shelter, entertainment, faith or childcare. Dividing factors are the allocation of scarce resources (money, water or food), politics (the preservation of governing power), and the institutions of religion. Groups can be small where everyone knows one another or they can be large such as political parties or unions, where only a small number of group members are personally known to one another. Humans strive to identify with a group. In some cases, the individual's identity is lost and becomes indistinguishable from the identity of the group. Groups can be informal without structure (for example a group of sports fans or people at the dog park), or they can be of a structured nature (such as HOAs, country clubs or political parties).

Our American society, like many globally, has become increasingly atomized. The TV, internet and Covid certainly contribute to our current state of individualization and loneliness. I mention dog parks and athletics because I have noticed of late that groups important to me are the group at the dog park, and my pickleball community. In both of these informal groups there is a commonality among the people — dogs or athletics. Conversations at the dog park or the pickleball court revolve around mutually shared interests which are uniting and comforting. We share funny stories about our pets; on the pickle ball courts we lament our aches and pains. Divisive subjects are avoided, not by rules or procedures but by the nature of the group. There is little, if any, discussion of race, religion, politics, ethnicity or gender issues. It is not that I don't enjoy civil conversations about those topics, but they pale in the face of gentle, informative, positive topics like dogs or sports competition.

Returning to the monkey examples, individuals seemed to go out of their way to help others; I marvel at this effort. On a personal note, as most of you know I am not an observant Jew. In the past I went to high holiday services, but last year I wondered why I was sitting in the synagogue. So this year for the Jewish New Year I sat with a friend recovering from a very difficult cancer surgery. For the day of Atonement, I bicycled to a blood donation center and donated a pint of blood. For Thanksgiving I served as a care giver to my wife of 38 years who had back surgery. While I do not shun the Jewish community, or the family unit, my individual efforts were very rewarding.

So, my NEW YEAR'S message is to encourage you to seek out groups to get involved in — groups that take you away from the isolating computer, TV news, or the seclusion of your home. Seek out those groups that you can identify with because you share common interests with the other people there. They may be challenging or comforting, but the group dynamic, I believe, is good for the body and soul. Do this in conjunction with an individual effort to aid or comfort another person. If we are to not merely survive but to thrive, the effort will be worth it.

Wishing you the very best for the new year!!!!!