Like Atoms, Passing in the Night
Early in my college career I seemed to have a ‘falling-out’ with one of my theatrical colleagues. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but while at the end of one term we were getting along decently well, by the beginning of the next we weren’t making eye contact or speaking.
At that point in my life I had a very strong policy of non-initiation in social situations. I figured that the best to avoid making a social misstep was to take my cues from the other person. This policy had served me well in preceding years, but was admittedly rather limiting, and was getting to be more of a constraint than the help it had been originally.
Now, even in a small drama departments it is possible to remain professionally distant from someone. The problem was that our class schedules meant that we walked past each-other 3+ times every Monday and Wednesday morning! While we were walking down opposite sides of the quad, or crossing paths at maybe two feet distance, at angles where we could have easily just not seen each-other (if we had been wearing blinkers) . . . who was I to judge? Then about four weeks into the term we were walking in opposite directions, down the same side of the quad, without any friends or gadgets to occupy us. Neither one of us so much as glanced at the other. It’s something of a wonder we didn’t crash!
No Atom is an Island
Keep in mind, I really have no idea why we were acting this way. I was just following her lead. At this point though, I’d had enough. If she wanted to maintain that distance, she was on her own. That next Monday I smiled and acknowledged her each time we passed. By our third pass that day, all enmity seemed dissolved. Looking back, I’m not sure how much enmity there was in the first place!
What strikes me most strongly about this experience is the strength of influence I tapped into simply by changing my patterns of interaction. This incident would be the first in a series of experiments I conducted that explored how to engage others to highest mutual advantage. If that sounds too analytical, look at it this way: I had discovered that through my simple presence I could have a profound – if fleeting – positive effect on those around me, and I wanted to maximize and internalize that capacity.
Butterfly Wings, Rapped Up with Strings
Human beings are social creatures, and the first corollary to that truism is that moods are infectious. Almost all of us have had the experience of group project or team effort, where the group vibe was strongly influenced by an individual or small constellation of people who set the tone. Maybe one member is off on their own trajectory while trying to drag the rest of the group with them. There could be a second person so oblivious to what’s going on they have to be carried by the team, possibly a third that refrains from the lime light, but helps by their disposition to keep the group grounded and tensions light enough that the team can still move forward.
In scientific experiments one of the keys is to avoid “observer effect,” the danger that in attempting to measure something you become a variable of the phenomenon you are observing. It is a problem with many scientific disciplines, especially quantum physics, but comes to its most human expression with documentarians tasked with reporting what one observes at the expense of helping those in need. This doesn’t feel natural. When surrounded by suffering to which we are an outsider, we are pulled out of our emotional detachment. To re-establish our own balance we are either driven into ourselves or are moved to give of ourselves and thus move beyond just observing in order to balance our emotional response to our surroundings.
A funny thing can happen, though, when we are in a group or societal context. In closer and smaller groups, the quality and level of energy people experience can start to build on each other. This energy does not simply disappear when our hypothetical group disperses; each member is likely to carry it with them at least for a time, continuing to act from it and gently affecting those with whom they come into contact. Thus one small community of joy has on impact on the lives of those around.
So let’s boil this down to the individual. If I act from a place of high spirits, there is a decent chance that I will raise the spirits of those with whom I interact. Their positive mood may, in turn, have some effect on the next people they meet, furthering the ripples of good cheer beyond my immediate influence. The theoretical potential of this pattern is something akin to the butterfly accused of starting a hurricane because it flapped it’s wings at just the wrong time!
Coming Down to Earth
Admittedly, I’m not sure it is humanly possible to be in the best of moods all the time. And when I’m feeling miserable, sometimes the last thing I need is some sprightly soul to come bounding into my life like Tigger on a caffeine high. Maybe that’s just me, but I suspect not.
During the few months following my ‘smile experiment’, I became aware of another piece of the puzzle. Over the preceding years, I had deliberately developed my ability to be grounded enough in myself that I don’t end up fire-hosing my emotions-du-jour at anyone in range. I admit to taking this reserve a bit far in my attempt to stay within acceptable norms, but it did prove a useful tool to setting aside my own joys and sorrows in order to address the needs of other people. The trick is/was to be grounded enough to be present with the people you are dealing with while also holding a high level of joy with which to raise their boat at a rate that they can handle.
I’m not going to claim this is easy, but it is important to realize that we have an effect on the people around us; not just in our actions, but within our very presence. It is also important to recognize that we have some level of control what that effect is. Lest this second point be misconstrued as wishful thinking or limited in scope: In my four years of high-school I went from needing to shut my emotional expression off in case it accidentally hurt someone to being able to heal a breach with an estranged friend bythe ‘simple’ application of a smile.
The Individual Mandate
Given that we have this effect on our compatriots, it is important that we examine how we are using that influence. I’ve talked mostly about joy and sorrow, but what sort of environment are we creating? It is beyond the scope of this little missive to go into what emotive states produce the most productive work situations, but it is something that deserves attention. Are our interactions a positive force in our communities of work, learning, and recreation? When we greet someone, do they experience it as a ray of sunshine or a stubbed-toe?
It seems people like to complain a lot about how (a) the world is going to hell, and (b) us normal people can’t do anything about it because it’s all just too big and we are powerless to make a difference. Well, I don’t believe in the invisible hand of economics and I don’t believe in the invisible hand of society either. In both cases, ‘what is’ amounts to the habits and patterns we have decided to enforce. What ‘will be’ is what we start to implement in our lives starting today. In the end, it is primarily our sphere of influence that tends to have the most profound influence on our lives anyway. We may not be able to take responsibility for the whole world, but by the same token we cannot abdicate the effect of our role in our small corner.
Who knows, someone may smile back.