Wednesday, February 18, 2009

An Unwanted Journey: Day 1186 - Roseto and Me


Carl Jung called it synchronicity, the concept that two or more events could occur to produce meaning even though the events were causally unrelated to one another. Believers might simply call it the Holy Spirit. Others kawinkidink.

Whatever you want to call it, it's probably safe to say that you've all experienced it, many times. In fact, you might be embarrassed to admit how many times you've thought about someone only to have that person give you call on the telephone a few moments later. Or had an idea only to find the next magazine article or book you picked up address that idea precisely.

Why embarrassed?

Because in our scientific world of cause and effect, where meaning is discovered in causation itself (two brothers toss a football in the backyard, one throwing, the other catching the first toss - a straightforward physical event with throwing and catching causally related), we become uncomfortable with the legitimacy of finding meaning in anything else (the two arrive in the backyard, coming around the corners of the house at exactly the same time, each with a football, without any prior discussion about tossing the ball around with one another for a few minutes).

In the example here, you'll notice that the meaning of the physical event of tossing the football is very different from the meaning in the intention of tossing the football with one another. The one is external, the other internal - but both clearly have meaning. One is clearly discovered by observation. The other discovered only by having the participants report their intentions to an observer.

A kawinkidink just happened to me.

My sister-in-law, and my wife and I were just discussing the notion of how my blog about cancer has created a community where all of us - author, reader, correspondent - are participating in a fairly short-term phenomenon of meaning creation. That meaning is likely to be slightly different for each of us, but its discovery and lasting impact is only possible because of the creation of this particular form of community.

In the community, we talk about death, dying, cancer, cancer treatment, ways of coping, family, friends, love, caring, religious faith and non-belief, etc. The intensity of our discussions in this community derives from the very real and probably immanent event of my demise at the hands of a persistent metastatic colorectal cancer. In other words, this virtual community isn't playing games. We're dealing with real life-and-death issues.

So then, I rearrange a few books and pick up my recently purchased copy of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success (probably because my sister-in-law had mentioned the word outliers a few moments earlier).

I read the introduction about the strange health benefits which accrued to the citizens of a small American town in Pennsylvania called Roseto. There I hear, for the first time, about the research of Stewart Wolf in his attempt to discover why those living in Roseto lived such healthy lives. Wolf demonstrated that the reason was community.

It wasn't genetics, or diet, or exercise, or even a culture brought over from their hometown of the same name in Italy. It was, instead, a consciously created community where it was common for three generations to live together in the same home. Where most people went to the same church every week. Where people stop to chat with one another as they shopped along the main street in the many individual family-run stores. Where people tend to work in the same occupations. In other words, where a special kind of community existed which inoculated the citizens against the ravages of the typical modern American diet and way of living [it's worth noting that the Roseto effect faded over time as the sense of community was lost in the melting pot of American life].

I have half-jokingly said to many people that the single most therapeutic treatment I have discovered has been my blog. But now I'm wondering if I wasn't touching on something more than merely the catharsis of writing about my experiences and then reading the occasional response to something I wrote. I wonder now whether there isn't an actual physical benefit which derives from the creation of a virtual (sometimes physical) community.

It would be a marvellous synchronicity if this were so.


brie said...

In a study done of areas in the world where significant longevity was the norm, (only one in North America!), community was considered/discovered to be a common contributing factor. (Interestingly, a sense of purpose. i.e. a reason for etting up in the morning was the other major contributing factor). According to the report, community was actually considered to be more significat than any physical factor, such as diet or exercise.

Even without that study, there is no doubt in my mind that there is an actual physical benefit from being part of a community, whatever that community may look like. The sharing of ideas can get the adrenaline running, the sharing of emotions can lower our heart rate (when anger is diffused through support, as an example), the sharing of happiness can increase our respiratory rate in a positive manner .....

... and through a commmunity can come stimulation, growth, support, and a sharing of our essential, and common, humanity ..... and therein, to me, lies its greatest gift of all ....

... and did you know that could all come about because you are open, honest, and you like to blog?
Now there's synchronicity for you!


brie said...

Just dropping by to say hi.

Thinking of you and hoping spring comes soon!


Don Spencer said...

Hi Brie. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for sharing your thoughts too.

Would you mind checking on a reference for that study on longevity? I'd like to read a little further on the subject.

Women seem a little better at the business of building community. Some from our time together on the Meadowlane School Council have been regular readers of this blog, for example. Others are great at cooking and sharing soup. But however they share, it's the women of that group that are doing so.

There are exceptions in our physical neighbourhood, but generally women are better at this sort of thing. Is that significant?

In any case, I think the idea of community needs further reflection. Right now, it's just an abstract ideal for me. I don't have a clear idea of what elements are necessary, which ones are optional add-ons, and which are things to be avoided in building community. And then, of course, there's the whole business of how community heals.

We sometimes read about the healing power of prayer in much the same way as I spoke about the healing power of community. In both cases, however, there is little in the way of a mechanism or detailed explanation.

In my experience, the healing power of prayer is the same thing as the healing power of community. When I studied the history of early Christianity, it occurred to me that the stories told about Jesus and his healing ministry were almost always about restoration of individuals to community.

Perhaps that's a good place for me to begin to flesh out my own ideas about how community heals. But if you, or anyone else, has further suggestions, please feel free to add them here.

Thanks again, Brie.