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Linda Rosenberg

Former President and CEO, National Council for Behavioral Health

“People are Hard to Hate Close Up”: Learning to Reconnect with Ourselves and One Another

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Are we willing to live in a world governed by fear or are we willing to fight for a world driven by love? – Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy

We live in an increasingly interconnected world, yet we are lonelier and more isolated than ever. And it’s literally making us sick. That was the view expressed by several NatCon18 speakers, who also offered simple yet powerful solutions.

Human beings are wired for connection, said sociologist, researcher and bestselling author Brené Brown. We crave belonging, but we are going about it in all the wrong ways.

Brown has spent the past 16 years studying courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy, and her presentation The Power of Vulnerability is one of the top five TED talks in the world. She brought her lifechanging message to a standing-room-only crowd at NatCon18.

True belonging, Brown discovered when researching her fourth New York Times bestseller, “Braving the Wilderness,” requires the courage to stand alone. Instead, we are working hard to fit into, grouping ourselves into factions by political beliefs and ideology. But it’s backfiring. The more we associate with those who already share our views, the more we stay “quiet and small in our bunkers and loud in our echo chambers,” Brown said.

“We are high lonesome and heartbroken as a culture,” she lamented. “We live, worship, go to school and hang out with people who are just like us. We are the most sorted Americans in human history and lonelier than ever, too.”

Both Brown and former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy – who sat down for a fireside chat with me – noted that loneliness is a better predictor of early death than obesity. It has the same negative effect on our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Dr. Murthy didn’t expect to be talking about loneliness, but he said it is one of the most common illnesses he sees.

As 19th Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Murthy authored the first Surgeon General’s report on alcohol, drugs and health. He ignited a powerful conversation about the need to address our nation’s addiction problems – problems that have their root causes in chronic stress and lack of emotional wellbeing.

Rebuilding Trust, One Person at a Time

Our problems are profound, but the solution may be as straightforward as learning to trust one another. And that starts, first and foremost, with learning to trust ourselves.

“Once we belong thoroughly to ourselves and believe thoroughly in ourselves, true belonging is ours,” Brown pointed out. Dr. Murthy agreed. “This is as much about connecting to ourselves as it is about connecting to other people,” he said. “We have to love, believe in and value ourselves to build relationships to other people.”

The next step is scary but equally essential. We must move closer to other people, even – and especially – those with whom we might disagree.

“People are hard to hate close up,” Brown said, and she illustrated her point with a personal anecdote. In the days after Hurricane Harvey devastated her Houston neighborhood, she recalled, “No one said, ‘I’m here to save you, who did you vote for?’ It’s not about which side of politics you’re on – it’s about which side of humanity you’re on,” she said.

Because we are living in world that makes genuine human interaction more difficult, Dr. Murthy encouraged us to make social interaction a priority and track it. “We track our steps, what we eat and what we spend,” he pointed out. “We should track when we are fully present in authentic human interaction.”

To Dr. Murthy, that means drawing boundaries around our use of technology. “Human connection is the source of our strength as families, communities and a nation,” he said. He encouraged us to step outside our comfort zones to initiate change in our communities. “Start locally with a problem you are concerned about,” he noted. “You’d be surprised at how welcoming people are.”

Ultimately, Brown acknowledged, “There is so much trauma, addiction and pain underneath hate.” She thanked NatCon attendees for “choosing work on the hardest edges of love. You are setting small campfires that will become a blaze of trauma-informed work,” Brown said.

Loneliness and isolation are pervasive and are negatively affecting our health. Tell me how you are addressing it in your own lives and those of the people you serve.