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Tedx talk 310123 with slides.pdf

  1. 1 What is going on, in our society? Divided we stand. Others have silly ideas. Or crazy beliefs. Their truth is not mine. We counterargue, counteract or, simply, counter. Or: we ignore. We do not encounter. We do not see the Other. We understand the world in our own ways. Singular. Separate. Suffocating (in our own bubble). Barbed wire – painful divisions. Even among family and friends. Or should I say: former friends? No web of meaning. No connection.
  2. 2 Unaware of each other’s traditions, the secular may miss that it is Ramadan, and celebrating Easter, one may be unconscious of the links with Passover, coinciding again, this year. Societal division is of all times but its current acute level seems very much a 21st century phenomenon, with 2016 as an all-time low. Yet, since, divisions have become even worse. Thanks to the pandemic.
  3. 3 People had their own ‘views’ and ‘opinions’ on COVID. And on corona-related measures. They fought each other tooth and nail on these. Did not see the Other’s position. Whether that of an expert (fortunately, even experts do not always agree on matters) or of fellow citizens. Mockery of measures, or of resistance to these, was rampant. Not seeing each other by mask wearing fuelled the alienation. As did the 1.5 meter distance. No touch, no closeness. How to assess a person when we see only the eyes, not the whole face? Quarantine led to more isolation and, also, to more mental aloofness of others.
  4. 4 Where might we be? Is there a way out of division, isolation, on-line hatred, fake news? My inspiration recently came from various sources. Allow me to share these with you.
  5. 5 Vivek Murthy – an American physician third-generation US citizen with an Indian background – was appointed Surgeon-General by Presidents Obama and Biden. This high-ranking position in the American administration acts as a leading spokesperson on matters of public health. Upon his first appointment, Murthy thought he knew the issues devastating Americans’ health: obesity and the opioid epidemic. But, as a true listener, he went on a tour through the United States to learn first-hand what concerned citizens. He found that an underlying condition to many health ailments was: loneliness. Acknowledging the relationship between loneliness and health, he started to investigate the scholarship on the subject. And to gather examples of initiatives to overcome loneliness and establish connection. And wrote a book on it.
  6. 6 The core idea behind ‘connection’ is that we re-learn to listen to the other. True listening requires one to vacate oneself of prejudices and good ideas about how to “help” the other. Unconditional positive regard is called for: expressing empathy, support, and acceptance to the Other, regardless of what they say or do. A damned difficult skill. But, as all skills, learnable – through teaching, practising, repetition. Thus, we come to different understandings: of matters and, above all, of people.
  7. 7 As a philosophical background, one might invoke Emmanuel Levinas, the Lithuanian-French philosopher of Jewish background. He posits that it is the face of the Other that invites us to respond, to act with compassion, to love. It is only because Others see us that we exist. Without Others seeing us, we wither and die. Recently, Belgian psychiatrist Dirk de Wachter, recalled Levinas and the importance of meeting, truly experiencing, the Other in times of need and despair. Meeting ‘Others’, both close relationships and passing encounters, helps him confront a terminal illness.
  8. 8 We do not need wait for a governmental appointment or to be confronted by a life-threatening disease to see the importance of meeting the Other. Or to grasp the need for societal connection in today’s world. And we can act – in small but meaningful ways.
  9. 9 As Financial Times columnist Elizabeth Uviebinené wrote a while ago – a great way to connect is to invest in the “weak ties” in your life. The people on the periphery of your life. The neighbour across the road, the lady at the bus stop, the cleaner of the office building. Or, I’d like to add, the total stranger you chance upon while travelling, working, vacationing. Even the author of a book you just finished reading or the radio presenter you listened to. Sometimes, I write to them to thank them for their contribution. Acknowledge the existence of people you do not (yet) know, greet them, give them a compliment. It may make their day. And yours.
  10. 10 When I was fortunate enough to give a university course on societal connection, one of the assignments the students had to undertake was to make connection with a total stranger each day of a week and report on these encounters. There was amazing feedback. Mostly truly positive. And life-changing: instilling a habit to acknowledge others, ‘fringe people’ in our lives and thus feel more connected, better embedded. Leading to changing understandings. Naturally, such basic experimenting does not solve the issue of societal division. Yet, it may help diminish feelings of alienation. And increase a sense of trust.
  11. 11 Before we part, allow me to go back to Vivek Murthy. He does not shy away from calling for love in the context of government policies and commercial enterprise. When answering questions from my students, last year, he made an observation that struck me. While people opposing each other vehemently on-line may seem to lack love, Murthy posits that even the worst haters on Twitter do love. They are likely to love their children, staying up at night when kids are sick, or taking them to sports, music, classes before or after their own work. So, the next time you encounter hate speech, consider this: the person writing this probably also feels love. Only less so for you, or for your ideas.
  12. 12 Ultimately, we may consider ourselves given an assignment in this life. One that Albert Einstein beautifully captured: We are part of the whole which we call the universe, but it is an optical delusion of our mind that we think we are separate. This separateness is like a prison for us. Our job is to widen the circle of compassion so we feel connected to all people and all situations