It's Catching

January 10, 2010
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

Do you remember a few months ago when the H1N1 flu virus was particularly virulent and we talked about alternative ways to greet each other than the traditional hug or handshake or kiss? I got some suggestions off of a public health website that included fist-bumping, elbow-bumping, the hugging-the-self maneuver, saluting, waving and bowing?

Well, I must apologize because I gave over to my reflexes almost immediately and was shaking hands, hugging and kissing by the next Sunday.  I've heard this from other clergy, too: We tried bowing to each other for awhile but everyone's touching again."  Not so great from a public health perspective but definitely good news on the human front. Jesus used to go right up to lepers and touch them. He ate meals with people who had the ancient world equivalents of HIV.  Albert Schweitzer, a secular saint whose birthday is coming up on Thursday – doctored to people in Africa amid people with highly contagious diseases. Remembering this kind of compassionate presence, I find it heartening to know that it takes such sustained effort and intention to avoid getting too close to others in the beloved community.  We had legitimate reason to keep our distance and we didn't make a success of it at all.  I think that's good news.

Don't get too close." That's the word from beyond these walls. Not only are viruses and germs catching, but apparently so are some other unpleasant conditions. Like earlier this year, I heard that obesity was contagious. I felt terrible about it: what if I had infected my friends with fat? That's how it happens, I read. The New England Journal of Medicine concluded in July that the expanding waistlines of our friends could be more on indicator of our own weight gain than even genetics.  This study showed that people who had a friend who became obese were 57% more likely to become so themselves – even, get this, if that friend lived far away! The study concludes that having overweight spouses and siblings didn't have as much impact on a person's likeliness of becoming obese as having obese friends did.  Study co-author James Fowler warned, "You are what you eat isn't the end of the story. You are what you and your friends eat."

That was depressing news, but no one I knew seemed to be crossing overweight friends off their social calendar, and several friends of mine actually lost a good amount of weight – and even ate meals with me. By the end of the year I had relaxed a bit and was feeling less dangerous to be around when I learned of another upsetting study – this one proving that loneliness is contagious!  Yes. This study came from a psychologist out of the University of Chicago who warned that lonely people have more negative interactions with others, and may somehow spread a distrust of social relationships.  I think this is a scientific way of saying that lonely people are a bummer.

Well, now I felt dangerous again. Who knew? Thou shalt not be lonely" is a commandment I've never heard of, and don't we all have our times of loneliness? I have always believed – and in fact counseled -- that when you feel lonely, one of the best things to do is to pick up the phone or get in the car and spend time talking to or visiting someone who cares about you -- you know, one of those people we commonly refer to as friends."  If I am to believe the study, I have been promoting an unsound practice -- science now shows that rather than being a healthy, healing response to isolation, spending time with friends can actually infect them with loneliness. I can't imagine what kind of solution this study suggests: perhaps society should quarantine all lonely people and monitor their comings and goings so they don't infect the non-lonely population?

Lord have mercy on us. Really. The religious community and the scientific community who conduct and publish these studies need to talk.  For one thing, we need to talk about how we interpret these findings.  I think we need to ask first,

>Is it really alarming that human beings have a significant influence on each other?

> Is it so surprising that the suffering of one we care about might cause us to reflect in a somber way on the vulnerabilities of all our lives; the insecure parts of all our psyches?

> Do we really need statistical evidence that our appearance in every aspect from weight to hair ‘do's to clothing choices to the cars we drive and the kind of towels we put in our bathrooms are highly influenced by our chosen peers?

But I suppose that we can appreciate these studies for putting hard empirical data behind what philosophers and poets have known all along which is: The human condition is catching. It is contagious. What we do actually does matter, not only to us but to others. We are deeply influenced in behavior, outlook, attitude and habit by those around us. 

I encourage you not to despair of this.

If a close friend is lonely and trusts you enough to share their deepest feelings with you, you will – if you are sensitive creatures at all – very likely feel sad for them and with them. That's not a problem, that's a human response called empathy.  It's called compassion. It is a gift that comes in a difficult package, but a gift nonetheless: one that invites us to consider our own relative loneliness or aloneness, to gain a renewed sense of appreciation for the people we have, or have had, in our lives who assuaged that sense of essential aloneness that is the birthright of every human being, and to get a true sense of the condition of our own defenseless heart at that moment. 

Sharing the vulnerability of our friend, we may indeed risk becoming aware that we, too, have been feeling lonely.  Any time we dare to move beyond the boundaries of our own skin is a risk.  We may think, My friend is so dear to me, I hope she comes out of this blue funk soon. Maybe we should schedule a get-together next week." That's a risk right there: caring about someone else may actually cut into our schedules! We may think, Being a friend is hard: this is the third time this week my friend has called me at work in the middle of day because she's so lonesome." There's a risk there, too: intimacy brings a sense of responsibility. Do we want that responsibility? Is the relationship reciprocal enough that we do not feel like we are the eternal giver and never the receiver of care?  If so, we may have a hard truth to tell or a boundary to set. 

It's all very risky. And the alternative is not a safer life, but a fast spiritual death.

I don't know if there are many scientific studies showing how pettiness, meanness and bigotry can be catching, but I know that they can, and you know it too. Tell me, would you rather be subject to the contagion of loneliness than to the toxicity of mean-spiritedness? Are the health or emotional risks associated with being close friends with obese, lonely people any worse than those of keeping company with physically fit, nasty, socially popular people?

Everything we are is catching. Remember Scott Russell Sander's son telling him, Your view of things is totally dark. It bums me out." This news shook Sanders and deeply upset him. If my gloom cast a shadow over the creation for my son, then I had failed him." Hearing this, we too accept that we are responsible for being conscious of what kind of shadow or light we are casting, as it does affect others around us, and especially those closest to us.  What we must keep faith with, however, is that we may be doing many small things in our daily lives that act like a goodness virus that infects all the people with whom we come in contact.  Like passing on a cold, we don't even know how far the germ can spread.

Henry David Thoreau, a brooding personality who was often lonely, writes a small treatise on civil disobedience that winds up inspiring the courageous, world-changing tactics of both Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  They caught what he had: a spirit for justice within a commitment to peace. In the late 1980's, Kazakh poet Olzhas Suleimenov was invited to read his poetry on live television and took the opportunity to read a manifesto demanding a shutdown of a Soviet nuclear test site in Kazhakstan.  The next day, five-thousand Kazakhs who were obviously infected by his courage, gathered at their Writer's Union and formed an Anti-Nuclear Movement that wound up shutting down the Soviet test site. (This anecdote can be found in The Global Stage," in The Impossible Will Take a Little While, Paul Rogat Loeb, ed., p. 223). 

A little Jewish girl named Anne Frank decides to keep a diary while hiding from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic with her family. She has no way of knowing that her small act of courage, and her quote, Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart," will make her a heroine to millions of people she could never imagine would care anything about her, and inspire them to work for humanitarian causes.

Someone gives a neighbor a ride home with their groceries, that person, ---feeling grateful and cared for -- shares those groceries with the hungry family next door, a child from that family goes to school well-fed and has enough energy to do well on her test and to win her track-meet. She goes on to win a university scholarship in track, earns her business degree, and returns to her community to become a major force in the revitalization of the downtown. Or she becomes a teacher, helping other kids from the same underprivileged area to pursue an education as she did. The possibilities are endless.  We are contagious.

You know what else is contagious? Uncontrollable laughter. Kindness is contagious: although there are those who build up a resistance to it, few are immune to its properties. Yawns are contagious, but so are smiles: Few can resist seeing a smile without having one break out on their own face within seconds.
Beauty can be contagious: if one neighbor plants flowers, chances are that others on the block will catch the desire to see that color and smell that fragrance in their own yards.  If you see a great work of art, you may soon show symptoms of wanting to create some yourself… even as early as that evening.  Singing is very contagious, especially in motor vehicles, as is dancing in crowded halls.  This is particularly dangerous as dangerous may lead to physical contact, which can lead to babies, which can lead to a virulent spread of the human condition.  Some people even think this is a conspiracy.

To be fully human is to be willing to catch what's going around, and thereby to learn, year after year, hard lesson after hard lesson, what it is we want to have more of in our lives, and which things we want to build immunities against.  The first thing we must catch from each other is courage, and the willingness to participate in this great contagion of the human condition.

Love is contagious. Pass it on.