I found myself skipping out to the mailbox on a recent bright day. Skipping is not as easy as it used to be, but the drive is long, and I had time to practice. It was such an old, familiar impulse — compelled by a startling rush of spring sunshine. I was thrilled to notice and claim the moment, and I felt lucky to be able to respond with my body.
What brings me back to Earth with a thud these days is the scarcity of understanding that humans are interdependent with each other and with the rest of our natural world. This understanding seems lacking in much of our public discourse, in governing, and in environmental policies and even education practices.
Never mind how or when we got lost. I leave that to the sociologists, historians, and political scientists. But as a social psychologist, I am greatly troubled by demeaning references to human nature and inspired by the healing power that we have right here on the Outer Cape.
We have community resources to address loneliness and other forms of deprivation: the Cape Cod Children’s Place, Helping Our Women, Outer Cape Health’s community resource navigators, the councils on aging, Homeless Prevention Council, and Lower Cape Outreach Council — but also book groups, walking clubs, and church communities. Some of us have found loving community, that renewable resource so essential to well-being.
Neuroscience now affirms what marginalized communities of indigenous people and people of color have known right along: that we affect one another’s well-being in every encounter, and that loving, hospitable relationships are good for our health.
Writers like Robert Finch and Henry Beston offer glimpses of another local resource to sustain and restore health: Nature herself. In The Outermost House (1928), Beston wrote, “Live in Nature, and you will soon see that for all its non-human rhythm, it is no cave of pain. As I write I think of my beloved birds of the great beach, and of their beauty and their zest for living. And if there are fears, know also that Nature has its unexpected and unappreciated mercies…. Whatever attitude to human existence you fashion for yourself, know that it is valid only if it be the shadow of an attitude to Nature.”
Our awareness of our place in Nature incorporates what we can learn from being still and listening closely to the waves and the owls, watching the cardinals and the great blue herons, terns, and chipmunks, and relishing with awe the changing of the seasons.
In Richard Powers’s novel The Overstory, we learn that with trees “there is always as much below ground as above,” and that fungal underground root networks mean that trees in a wood are in relationship with one another.
My recent exposure to Wampanoag educators has taught me a way to look at loving community among us human critters and in our surrounding waters and woods. It has something to do with giving before we take. “Pay it forward” is a great example.
With U.S. history so choked with the encrypted effects of genocide and exclusion, moving forward requires us to educate ourselves on the interwoven history of racism in America and how it is ongoing. Historic ruptures must be attended to, for everyone’s sake.
Only when members of the dominant culture take responsibility for uprooting the unseen power of privilege will everyone’s well-being be better served. Only then can we hope to have a different future for all.
The world’s religions teach about building loving community historically but not necessarily in practice — and always with significant exclusions. Let us pay attention to the possibilities for learning right now as we move into spring, to feel empathy for one another rather than disdain.
Notice what the trees and terns seem to know. It would likely be good for our health and might bring a skip back into our step.