By Denny Olson
“Rivers do not drink their own water; trees do not eat their own fruit; the sun does not shine down on itself and flowers do not spread their fragrance for themselves. Living for others is a rule of nature. We are all born to help each other — no matter how difficult it is … Life is good when you are happy, but much better when others are happy because of you.”Pope Francis
I have spent nearly my entire life trying to convince people that absolutely nothing in this world stands alone. Nature is interwoven with mind-boggling septillions of individual organisms, inanimate pieces, and especially, relationships. Some of us hold these truths to be self-evident: everything, without exception, is connected to everything else.
This “rule of nature” as Pope Francis has put it, is inherent in our social nature as Hominid primates. The present pandemic, with its stay-at-home, away-from-other-people, don’t-touch, mask-your-facial-expressions isolation — as deemed necessary for survival — runs counterintuitively to both the “rule” and our nature. We are helping others by temporarily severing critical pieces of relationships, like reassuring touch, and hugs, seeing smiles and hearing nuances in voice inflections, volume changes, hand gestures and especially, truth-revealing body language. We miss it dearly. Its absence downright hurts.
That isolation exposes our need to belong to something larger than us, like belonging to a team of some sort. Tight families are the classic example. Gatherings of like-minded people range from quiet Audubon meetings, political parties, service clubs or church worship to the regalia, costuming, face-painting and behavior at football games (I’m a lifelong Vikings fan I must shamefully admit). Sometimes, our need to “belong” taps into insecurities we have about our own worth — which is probably unhealthy — but mostly, our sense of belonging comes from good places. At its worst, reason, facts, evidence, science, reality itself — sometimes takes a back seat to loyalty to the team.
In the USA, and in most of Western civilization, some teams are partly founded on a philosophy of rugged individualism, fueled by our most basic instinct and the first in the hierarchy of needs. Namely, survival. Nothing wrong with that. It’s the first order of business for every living being. When survival is at stake, everything else is “in the way”. When survival (or the perception thereof) is at stake, it prevents looking broader, and farther ahead.
To some level, these observations apply to all of us. They are about the small picture (me and the team) clouding foresight toward the much bigger picture — the condition and health of life on our planet. The Big Team. Ultimately, it’s the only team that really matters.
Documented past (and carefully projected future) climate changes will present a paradox for us. Survival will demand belonging to the Big Team, and may fly in the face of our rugged individualism. It’s a very difficult leap of faith from thinking our happiness and well-being depends entirely on selfishness, and the approval of our small team members. If we can begin to understand the depth of our connections to everything in Nature (by studying birds, as one small example), and if we can “get over ourselves” and understand that “life is much better when others are happy because of us” — the “others” being not just humans, but our fellow passengers on this Planet — then we have a real chance at surviving long-term, for generations. The key to survival for us is counterintuitive. It is not dressed-up selfishness. It is a giant, but fact-based, leap of faith — altruism. And our altruism has to be toward all of the members of the Big Team. We survive by taking care of each other.
And with a nod toward reality, it probably has to start now.