As an aging extrovert, it’s interesting that I’ve discovered the joy in being alone. Solitary walks settle me, and my quiet home is as gratifying as I had imagined it would be when it was filled to the brim with those people (aka, my family.) To my surprise, I enjoy the calm space. Solitude was never my thing earlier in life. It might have been nice when I was a bit older, but I’ll never know since I was in the throes of family life: carpooling, cooking, cleaning, lecturing (both at home and at work), teaching (both), and assessing (both). You get the picture, and if you’re in the thick of it, you know there is little opportunity for solitude. In fact, there is little opportunity for many things, including reflection.
In January, though, things naturally slow down. Whether your children are living on their own or crawling underfoot, January in Chicago brings stillness. I find myself recalling icy sidewalks from childhood, or I notice a patch of pale pink sky in the late afternoon and remember that the sun, though without summer’s heat, shines for us yet. Nights are chilled into silence. We hunker inside in search of contentment. Dogs stay indoors. For extroverts, this can deplete our energy. What feels serene in January, can feel down-right soul-sucking by March.
It is times like this that warmth arrives in a different form. Earlier this month I was blessed with several days of meaningful connections that left me feeling uncharacteristically warm and grateful for this time of year. It began on a Wednesday with a heartfelt testimonial at the annual Elmhurst Walk-in Assistance Network (EWAN) luncheon. A courageous woman told her story of humbly learning to accept help. She acknowledged the critical role of EWAN, as well as York HS counselors, Yorkfield Food Pantry and the Elmhurst Police Department in sustaining her family during times of tragedy. I was honored to be in the room among these organizations which embody systemic compassion in action. That evening I attended a meeting for a non-partisan organization committed to gun sense called Moms Demand Action. Here I witnessed three testimonials from women who had lost family members to gun violence. Most striking to me was their tone of forgiveness, and their sincere desire to prevent further human suffering. Again, compassion in action.
At the heart of each story was family. New parents are often overwhelmed with love, and this same passion resurfaces in times of crisis. Whether bidden or not, the virtues of patience and compassion often are thrust upon unsuspecting parents. I recently enjoyed the sentiment of the author, Douglas Abrams who interviews Buddhist monks, as he states, “It probably takes many years of monastic practice to equal the spiritual growth generated by one sleepless night with a sick child.” This spiritual growth provides decades of protective energy for parents.
When we experience such love in a family, something unexpected occurs. We find ourselves feeling protective of “other” children. We find ourselves feeling compassion for other parents and families as well as our own. This source of warmth, born from pure maternal love and pure paternal love, connects us to our community, our country, our world.
The next day I had lunch with a friend and colleague from graduate school. So blessed are we in that our conversations never miss a beat. Since she is one of the best therapists I know, I felt heard, and more pertinently, I felt understood. Her children are raised, and I’ve had the benefit of gleaming her wisdom for years now. Finally, the weekend kicked off with a couple of my sisters and girlfriends (that I’ve known since grade school), braving the impending storm, filling my dining room with a hodge-podge of appetizers, and a smattering of stories that eventually settled on the theme of motherhood, compassion, and letting go.
The evidence linking healthy relationships to longevity, happiness, and physical health is solid. In fact, isolation, or a lack of social ties can have the equivalent impact on one’s health as daily smoking, and a worse impact than obesity or inactivity. But, the good news is that you don’t have to be an extrovert. Subjective connection (basically if one feels connected) is the benchmark, not the number of friends on Facebook.
The conversations that I engaged in were not necessarily happy or at times, even pleasant. No matter. They were meaningful. It turns out that besides fight or flight, another response to stress, especially in women is to Tend and Befriend. Turning toward another in times of stress benefits both the giver and the receiver. Anyone who has felt the healing power of having another person with them during the darkness of mourning knows this. Anyone who has kissed their child’s knee and made her “all better” knows this. In that sense, we can view January as a “stressor” and our connection to others as the antidote. Need a reminder of January stress? Oh, let me count the ways! Let’s start with the neck tension when huddled tightly for a simple trip to the curb. The critical minutes wasted fumbling for keys in full polar gear. The scraping of ice, the traversing of ice, and the chipping of ice off stairs and windshields. Need I mention the grey skies, the biting gusts of wind, and the sense of drudgery hanging in the air as the kids mope around in search of hats or mittens each morning? Yes, we are under attack.
Human connection, needed now more than ever, is definitely harder to come by in January. Even our friendliest neighbor is only good for a quick wave, and a scurry back to his porch. Still, when the opportunity comes around, simple eye contact, or an easy laugh, or even the discomfort of empathizing with another’s sadness can be just the cure for what ails us.
We all know those families who schedule regular game nights with their grade-school kids. I admired them from afar, and I must admit that it’s a brilliant way to connect. If you’re like me, and not able to pull that off, I’m sure you’ve found another way. Maybe the next time your little one asks, ‘can we play,’ you stop, and say yes. Maybe when your teenager is leaving the house, you hang out in the kitchen (in silence of course) in case she needs you. Or maybe you hire a sitter and go out to dinner with your spouse. Sounds nice right? That’s because it is. The next level, involvement in your community, can be mundane at times yes. But at certain moments it can be down-right life-affirming.
In Elmhurst, we have an incredible event every February called the No Frills Fun Run. It is the perfect example of connection, community, and compassion in action. This charitable event provides 100% of its proceeds from donations to a local family in need. It is spearheaded by two high-energy, uniquely-altruistic women. They rely on and receive support from an endless number of volunteers, and it provides funds for a mom, or a dad and their kids at a critical moment in their lives. It is epic!
After several days of connections, as I faced the onslaught of yet another Saturday snowstorm, somehow I was filled with gratitude. I savored the smell of coffee while I watched the snow silently dazzle the view from my cozy kitchen window. The joy of such moments sustains us. One of my good friends loves to tease me for routinely discussing research findings.
“According to research!” she exclaims with air-quotes as she imitates me in jest. I laugh along every time. She’s right. It’s an annoying tendency of mine, and it is funny when she calls me out on it. This is a simple example of the power of connection. It brings me joy.
And ‘according to research,’ I am not alone. If we have connection, it is through the compassion therein, that we receive joy.