Curious Connections

A man named Pavlov was studying the digestion of dogs when he noticed something—that one of his dogs salivated when he rang a bell. That something, when paired with philosophy, gave rise to what we now know as the field of psychology.

A man whose job had been oversight of responses to epidemics overseas noticed that neighborhood violence seemed to multiply according to the same patterns as diseases. When he suggested that similar strategies to those he’d used for a decade be applied in the neighborhood, crime dropped by 75% in six months.

A medical researcher learned about how the HIV virus took over healthy cells and wondered if a person’s T-cells could be altered in such a way that they’d attack cancer cells instead. His curiosity resulted in an experimental treatment that has now seen children with recurring leukemia go into and remain in remission.

I love stories like that. I guess I’m a reductionist of sorts because they suggest to me that everything in our universe is connected in a way we can’t even imagine, that there are only a few absolutes in our world and that if we discover them, we will have the key to solving almost anything.

Jesus was a reductionist, too, given what he said in answer to the question, “What are the greatest commandments?” St. Paul took it another step in a letter to the community of believers in Rome:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you love your neighbor as yourself, you will do him no harm, says Paul in the next verse. (Romans 13:9-10 NIV, my emphasis)

I remember thinking when I was a psychotherapist that my job wouldn’t exist if the church, as I understood it, did its job. What I had learned in psychology—from Maslow to Erikson, from depth psychology to object relations theory—only supported what Jesus said: 1) If we recognize that we are each loved and known by the Creator Abba, then our only response can be to treat each other as holy siblings, and 2) Love is to be offered and experienced in respectful, supportive relationships with each other.

Knowing both personally, and as a therapist, that what every one of us most longs for is to be known, to be genuinely cared about, to be completely ourselves without fear of rejection or abandonment, I saw no conflicts at all between what Jesus seems to have known about human nature and what psychological experiments and my days in the counseling chair seemed to suggest. And although it’s been years since I left the counseling profession, I still see no conflicts. In fact, the evidence has only grown, in my mind. Here’s what I mean.

About 10 years ago, I read a journal article about a meta-analysis of the effectiveness of different psychotherapy techniques. The study had looked at thousands of other studies and recorded measures of improvement based on patients’ responses to surveys. Was psychoanalysis or insight psychotherapy more effective? How about implosive therapy? Cognitive therapy? Behavior therapy? After all was said and done, none of the techniques had turned out to be better than others. In fact, there had been only one factor of significance in the improvement of clients across therapy techniques—the clients’ beliefs that their therapists had cared about them.

Then, a few years later, I happened onto an article about addiction by a young man named Johann Hari, who has since written a book called Chasing the Scream. Having grown up in a family of addicts, he’d decided to find out all he could about the subject, and what he found is that nothing we think we know about addiction is true. Stay with me, because the recent explosion in opioid addiction is related. Hari’s premise is anchored in studies in the 1970s by Dr. Bruce Alexander, professor of psychology at the University of Vancouver. Dr. Alexander had re-examined studies that still form the basis of our public policymaking with respect to addiction—studies that suggest that the key to “winning” the war on drugs is separating those who use the drugs from the drugs themselves, forcefully if necessary. Those original studies involved putting rats in cages with two bottles – one with water and one with heroin-infused water. The majority of rats quickly came to prefer the heroin-infused water to the extent that almost 100% of the rats overdosed on it and died.

What Alexander noticed was that in those studies, the rats had been placed in the cages alone, and he wondered if that had affected the results. So, he ran experiments of his own, experiments that included the same two bottles, but also a veritable amusement park for rats—with cheese and wheels and most importantly, other rats. In Alexander’s experiments, none of the rats overdosed and died. In fact, most of them lost interest in the water bottles altogether. At the time, Dr. Alexander noticed something else, too—that although 20% of U.S. Vietnam veterans had used heroin with regularity while in Southeast Asia, the majority had walked away from the stuff when they came home to people who loved them and the social connections they depended on.

Mr. Hari recorded a TED Talk about his research, and at the end of the talk, he says something rather curious: “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” Click here to watch it.

Then, just a few months ago, I listened to New York Times’ columnist Thomas L. Friedman’s book Thank You for Being Late, in which he presents his argument for why we find ourselves in the current social, cultural, and political upheaval we experience daily. Citing 1) “Moore’s law,” that technology since the mid-1960s has essentially “obsoleted” itself every two years, 2) the fact, whether man-induced or natural, that we’ve seen a trend in which every year has been warmer than the one before, and 3) rapidly-expanding globalization of the market for goods and services, Friedman argues that our biggest problem is that our ability to adapt has not kept up. He makes a good case, I think, but I wondered what he thought we could do about it. After all, thinking people know that the acceleration of change in technology, of rising temperatures and their fallout, of the globalization of markets isn’t going to stop.

I would not be disappointed. What Friedman suggested was awfully familiar. From Chapter 14:

“…I have been struck by how many of the best solutions for helping people build resilience and propulsion in this age of accelerations were things you could not download but had to upload the old-fashioned way—one human to another human at a time. … How interesting was it to learn that the highest paying jobs in the future will be “STEMpathy” jobs, jobs that combine strong science and technology skills with the ability to empathize with another human being? … Whoever would have thought it would become a national security and personal security imperative for all of us to scale the Golden Rule further and wider than ever? And who can deny that when individuals get so super-empowered and interdependent at the same time it becomes more vital than ever to be able to look into the face of your neighbor or the stranger or the refugee or the migrant and see in that person a brother or sister? … We are the most technologically connected generation in human history and yet more people feel more isolated than ever… the connections that matter most and are in most short supply today are the human to human ones. …”

See a pattern? So do I. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Maslow said that except for physiological needs of food and shelter and safety, our need to belong, to feel we’re important to someone, is most important to our motivation to learn and grow. The most important factor in whether psychotherapy clients improve is a belief that their therapists care about them. Addiction may very well be an attempt to fulfill an instinctual need for connection. The great pathology of our lives today is isolation—just when we need each other more than ever before to survive and thrive in a world that threatens to mow us down with change.

The church of which Jesus spoke, as never before, has an awesome opportunity. The news we all need in this time of fear and anger and change is the same news we were charged with telling the world but have failed miserably to do. Will we who hear the call of the Christ to genuine, loving connection to each other finally do our job?

I hope so.


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