We Need Each Other — at Work, at Play, in Every Way — to be Fully Human

I’ve noticed recently a spate of articles appearing in newspapers and magazines about our need for other humans in our lives — from our workspaces to our social lives generally — articles about our interdependence as a species, in spite of our culture that prizes independence and our “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” individualism. For example, the March 12, 2023, issue of The New York Times contains an op-ed by Alissa Quart titled, “We All Depend on Someone. Let’s Celebrate That.” (See my lead photo and first photo below.) She writes, “everyone is dependent on the support of others — whether that’s family, friends or the state. ... Such dependence is, if you think of it, a form of connection and social cohesion. It brings us closer to others, which at this moment in America might be the thing we need most.”

In fact, I believe that is the thing we need most. Studies have shown that, exacerbated by the pandemic, depression and anxiety have increased as a result of social isolation — including working remotely from home. For some, such working arrangements have been positive — allowing for closer family interactions while taking time out for exercise and other activities. But for others, the loss of the workplace is a loss of social connectivity. As Jordan Metzi points out in a March 17, 2023 Times op-ed, working remotely is often not the best or healthiest arrangement. For many, the work environment is their primary social outlet. In fact, I’ve known folks who put off retirement because they would miss their colleagues’ company too much. Metzi writes:

Humans are social animals. Much like our biological imperative to [physically move about] is our need to interact. Despite advances in technology, our brains thrive with in-person relationships. ...

When in person, we learn to read body language, understand unstated nuances in communication and work more effectively with others. Studies have shown increased rates of depression and anxiety during remote work. Even if it’s easier, there is a sense of isolation that develops when real, in-person communication is substituted with virtual interaction. EEG studies of the brain found that face-to-face interactions produced stronger and longer-lasting psychological connections than virtual ones.

On that note, let’s talk about human love. Love comes in all shapes: love for our children or even pets, love for our friends, love for our spouses or partners in life. Human love. A Feb. 12, 2023, Times article by Michal Leibowitz titled “Going From ‘Me’ to ‘We,’ The Hardest Part of Love,” caught my eye. (See second photo below.) In fact, her article was the first brick in this blog’s foundation.

As I already have noted and as you also know since we share our culture, we are pretty independent critters. So Leibowitz writes about learning to go from “Me” to “We” after marriage. And it wasn’t easy! She concludes by writing about the whole concept of “we-ness,” pointing out that “to love someone for better or for worse, for all of your days, involves a certain kind of surrendering of the ‘I’ for the sake of the ‘we.’ It involves letting another person play a role in defining who [you] are and what [you] value. His or her joy is not simply important to you because they are important to you. It is your joy. The boundaries don’t dissolve, but they’re porous. Our own self-borders expand as we love.”

Which brings me to one of my books. In the final chapter of The Fiction of Our Lives, entitled “Imagine Me and You ... The Many-Splendored Thing Called Love,” I write all about love and our interconnectedness with one another. I write about our brain as an “open-loop system.” That is, we are deeply affected emotionally by others’ emotional states: “Cells such as mirror neurons cause us to mimic what we see others do — feeling others’ joy so we laugh; seeing others cry and becoming sad. Such cells ‘link’ us to each other. They appear to be an essential component of the social brain and an important mechanism of communication across the social synapse.” (p. 218) And if you will permit me the liberty of quoting myself, I shall conclude this blog with these thoughts:

This is how we humans are wired. This is how we have evolved from our earliest ancestors. Our finest human tendencies for fidelity, altruism, and bonding with others enable us to commit to mature love in all its forms across our adult lifetimes. None of us probably love perfectly, so this becomes a lifetime project, requiring work and revision along the way. None of us probably ever love perfectly, but our capacity is there — inborn — and can be learned and moved nearer to perfection over time. (pp. 218, 221)

And here is probably where some of us are — in our more mature years. So love at that end of life is often coupled with loss. In any case, we remain imperfect lovers: but when we love well, we do reflect the highest pinnacle of human attainment. “We learn how to love over a lifetime of watching it done well, being inspired to do likewise. Over a lifetime of drawing from our cultural menu of songs and stories, we struggle to make sense out of our deepest longing for others, transcending our own limits in this meaning-making process as we reach for friends, lovers, spouses, children and their children.” (p. 243) Becoming human in the process. No one said it better than the 17th-century English poet, John Donne:

No man is an island
Entire of itself
Every one is a piece of the continent
A part of the main ...

Anyone’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Amen, brothers and sisters. And so shall it be.

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Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.