BookMarks welcomes a new guest reviewer this month, Sue Shinomiya, and a book that while not cross-cultural by design will clearly resonate with our readers.
Together - The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World
by Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, US Surgeon General and Vice Admiral (2020)
Review by Sue Shinomiya, MBA
What if I told you that “The impact [loneliness] on reducing life span is equal to the risk of smoking fifteen cigarettes a day and it’s greater than the risk associated with obesity, excess alcohol consumption and lack of exercise”? That certainly gets my attention. We live in a world where regardless of nationality or culture, as much as a quarter of the population describes themselves as lonely some of the time. Togetherness – The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World was a book I sought out based on the title alone, given my passion for connectedness, and interest in the current state of flux in our pandemic lives, between disruption, distancing, disconnection, virtual connection, reconnection, hybrid work, intentional unplugging, going “off the grid,” and everything in between.
In a nutshell, the author highlights the urgency of human connection and the detriment of loneliness on human health. It came as a surprise to me to find out that the author is our own current and former US Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, MD. Like me, you’ve no doubt noticed his reassuring presence on television, especially during the pandemic, with updates, guidance, and straight talk about health and well-being. He doesn’t hesitate to make it personal by talking about the concerns he has for his own young kids, his experience as a child of immigrant parents from India, and the broader social implications of good health. Plus, when I hear diverse, non-white voices among those who have risen to positions of power in our political and policy arena, I make a point of sitting up and listening. Dr. Murthy writes from a place of direct experience as a doctor, scientific researcher, policy maker, and as a father. Not to be confused with solitude, which he describes as a state of “peaceful [voluntary] aloneness,” “loneliness is the feeling that you’re lacking the social connection you need”. If the loneliness is perceived as shameful, the lonely might not seek help and might feel resentment, creating a vicious cycle of increasing isolation, which can lead to illness and even hospitalization.
Murthy discusses the complexities of loneliness from the perspectives of society, human evolution, neuroscience, personality, psychology, medical diagnosis, and culture. Unsurprisingly, one of my favorite chapters is the one on Cultures of Connection, discussing cultural norms towards solitude and community around the country and around the world. The chapter addresses what many new immigrants miss when coming to the highly independent USA: the network and interdependence of family and people around you, “who were there to take care of you, and you did the same.” He brings up the Japanese concept of “Moai,” a social grouping around a common interest or community that acts like a family. Dr. Murthy coins the term “third-bowl culture,” seeing the potential of creating a hybrid culture that brings together the best of both individualized cultures and more traditional collectivist cultures in a way that both honors individual freedom of expression and offers a structure and opportunities for gathering and bonding.
In a sometimes-lonely world, Vivek gives us reason to hope through many examples of people who have come back from the brink and found connection, giving many examples of those who have refocused their energy to facilitate the connection of others. He also lays out some of his own unconventional strategies to strengthen our social connections, one of which paradoxically is embracing solitude—the choice to be alone in order to connect with oneself. Perhaps his most important recommendation is to “Help and be helped”: “Service is a form of human connection that reminds us of our value and purpose in life,” both giving and receiving.
This brings me back to our SIETAR, IC and DEI community. At the risk of sounding maudlin, sometimes in those dark moments of feeling disconnected and alone in the world, it certainly helps me to remember that I am always connected through my service to SIETAR USA, and with our global SIETAR, IC and DEI community, spread all across the globe. Even if we can’t be in physical proximity, I pause to recall the faces and voices of my SIETAR colleagues, the times we have learned, laughed, cried, and celebrated together. Then I consider what small thing can I do today to reach out to someone to maintain that connection, to uplift, so that we can carry on in the important connecting work we do? That is a purpose in and of itself.
I invite you to read and enjoy this book, and don’t hesitate to reach out to me with your thoughts, opposing views and your own supporting life stories. Be well, live long and stay connected!