Did you know that if people in your social network – especially people who are trend-setters in that network — smoke, or drink alcohol, or get divorced, or commit suicide, the chances that you will also smoke, or drink alcohol, or get divorced, or commit suicide increases by 20 – 150%?
This is also true for taking drugs, being overweight, having extra-marital affairs, supporting a particular political party, over-spending your income, becoming involved with a gang, stealing, buying a gun, participating in risky sex, and becoming part of a mob. If members of your social network participate in any or all of these behaviors, you are prone to participate in them, too. Much more prone (statistically) than the rest of the population.
Nicholas Christakis (of Yale University) has been studying social networks for decades and the results of the studies he has conducted and reviewed are consistent and clear across national boundaries, economic groups, education levels, genders, and ages. If you think this is a phenomenon limited to class or culture or race or ethnic heritage, you are wrong. It is universal. It is part of our human programming.
Human beings create networks and the networks then become living organisms in their own right, organisms which are fluid, flexible, much bigger than the sum of their parts, and incredibly powerful in shaping the lives of the individuals in that network.
Now, did you know that if the people in your primary social network have safe driving records, get married and have children, are healthy, participate in philanthropic giving, attend a place of religious worship, wash their hands before eating, visit the dentist, volunteer in soup kitchens or as classroom aides in their children’s schools, stop to help stranded motorists, pay their taxes, vote, or exercise regularly, the chances that you will also participate in those activities increases by 35 – 185%?
Feeling any better?
Christakis has discovered that networks are profoundly influential for good or for ill. They can mend social ills by serving as conduits for the spread of life-saving behavior (such as boiling water to sterilize and decontaminate it, sanitary personal hygiene practices, and the willingness to use vaccines). Where these practices are unusual or run counter to tradition, the behavioral shift of even one respected person within the network can spread the life-saving behavior through the whole network in a surprisingly brief period of time. We just saw this happen with the most recent Ebola outbreak in Africa.
…and networks can equally serve as the channels for unhealth, disrespect, violence, destabilization, rage, and war. They can tilt whole groups of people toward antisocial or sociopathic behavior. Think littering. Think pollution. Think trashing hotel rooms or abandoned buildings. Think lynch mobs. Think crosses burning on lawns. Think the inciting of hatred and prejudice. Think demonizing the ‘outsider’ or the ‘enemy’. Think Inquisition. Think Salem Witch Trials. Think Holocaust. Think genocide. Think suicide bombers.
So consider your social network(s)…and choose them carefully. I’m betting you are part of more than one (although one may be primary and, therefore, more influential). Each network overlaps and interacts with others, forming larger and larger interwoven nets in myriad dimensions. And, like a spider web, a tremor anywhere on the net will send ripples – however faint – along the threads through every node to the farthest reaches of the structure. As the ripple passes beneath your feet or through your heart, you have the choice to amplify it or to de-amplify it simply by how you respond. And: you have the choice to start a ripple by your actions or words – a ripple of hope, or generosity, or vision, or truth, or love, or justice. Or a ripple of anger, despair, revenge, dis-encouragement. Positive energy. Negative energy.
How do you choose? What are the values you want to send rippling across that vast, interconnected network? And what values do you want to amplify or de-amplify? Do you choose to mend or to rend?
Here in the United States we are watching certain social networks be used, abused, and manipulated in ways that are already seriously damaging (if not outright destroying) the values that have undergirded this country across generations; indeed, across centuries. We are watching large, interlocking networks be deliberately poisoned with anger, bitterness, prejudice, despair, fear, and a sense of entitlement. This poison is being spread with full consciousness and intention by self-proclaimed leaders who are seeking not the common good, but to gather more power for themselves.
Their intent is to unravel connections of mutual responsibility, open-mindedness, curiosity, welcome, and compassion – behaviors that help ‘immunize’ human beings to hatred and prejudice – and to incorporate the now disconnected individuals into a network of fear and self-interest, infecting them with tunnel vision and bitterness.
We can close our eyes and hope these broken networks (and the people currently seeking to control them) go away. But all we need to do is look at history to know that closing our eyes and retreating to our personal safe space won’t work. And while we waffle, the ripples of that anger and self-righteousness and prejudice and despair and fear are spreading through the net, they are reaching us and they are reaching people who are vulnerable. We have a choice.
We can mend the nets or we can leave them tattered and torn.
What Nicholas Christakis and his associates around the world have learned is that we (you and I) can change the tone and message of the network(s) of which we are a part and, by changing those networks, we change the networks to which they are connected by a thread here, a friend there. We change the world. We (we: you and I) can turn life-denying behaviors into life-affirming behaviors. We can turn ignorance into knowledge. We have more power for good than we might imagine. And we are not alone; we are part of something strong and elastic and flexible in the face of change.
Christakis has proven again and again that plagues spread…and so does health. Violence spreads…and so does peace. Alienation spreads…and so does kindness. We can de-amplify the hatred and amplify the compassion. De-amplify the anger and amplify the justice. De-amplify the despair and amplify the hope.
If I may borrow a phrase from the recent past, “Yes, we can!”
Text © 2016, Andrea La Sonde Anastos
Photos © 2015, 2016, Immram Chara, LLC
NOTE 1: You asked for my nine-fold prayers. Eight of them (for the quarter days and cross-quarter days of the Celtic Year) are now available as a hand-sewn booklet-card from my Etsy shop. There is even a special 2-For offer so that you can purchase one for a friend and one for yourself.
NOTE 2: If you haven’t seen my Facebook page (Immram Chara), please check it out. I post there almost every day. If you are willing (and haven’t already), please Like the page…and pass it along to friends. Thank you.