A Michigan man took to the streets to show his appreciation for nurses working to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic. Waving a sign that said “Free Gas for Nurses” the compassionate man stood on the corner of an Exxon gas station near a hospital in hopes of spreading some love to public health workers. The […]
In “More Together Than Alone,” Mark Nepo explores the power of community and digs into why it is so essential for people to work together. Nepo draws from history, religion and nature to show how humans are always stronger together than alone. Recently, Nepo was willing to sit down with Beliefnet and discuss some of the themes in his book.
Beliefnet: You describe people as having two main reactions when they encounter someone different: “Go away” and “Come, teach me.” How can we best shift our views to be part of the “come, teach me” crowd? How can we help others to shift their reaction from “go away” to “come, teach me?”
Mark Nepo: The paradox at the heart of this set of human reactions is that there is no they. We are they. Depending on the level of fear I wake with on any given day, I can push others away. So, we need each other, because together—through the courage to listen without reaction, to help without ulterior motive, and to discover through kindness that we receive more when giving—we grow and heal the way a broken bone mends. One way that we can deepen our openness to difference is to share our experiences and not our conclusions. Longfellow said, “If we truly listen to the suffering of our enemies, they will no longer be our enemies.” As nature proves, a healthy environment is a diverse one. Too much sameness and the eco-system dies. So, we need to enlist the quiet courage to make it safe enough to be different and to express difference, looking for how these differences weave and strengthen the threads of life, rather than cut each other off, which only weakens us by pushing each other away out of fear.
Beliefnet: You mention that technology does not always connect us, even when they help us reach out to one another. What about technology is it that keeps us “in touch” without connecting? How can we best use modern technology’s incredible capabilities to create real connections?
MN: While technology is a great tool, it is inert. It doesn’t have values. Yet if we are not pursuing an inner life, the characteristics of technology will become our default values. This means that speed, split attention, multi-tasking, and urgency will become our virtues… Technology can never replace direct contact with one another. But it is enabling us to be in conversation right now about the state of humanity and the tangle of our times. Still, the most insidious trait of technology is the implication that life is always other than where we are. This erodes our trust in life and relationship. So, when using technology, we need to focus even more on being in one place at one time, to stop multi-tasking and listen wholeheartedly to whoever is on the other end. Technology at its best will connect us, heart to heart. But it is our job to have technology serve the heart and not to have the heart mimic the speed and urgency of technology.
BELIEFNET: You mention how important it is to have the courage to be vulnerable to other people. How can people cultivate that courage? How should people best approach being vulnerable when their willingness to be vulnerable has been used against them in the past?
MN: There is no easy way to navigate this struggle. We can only support each other in the belief that living in the open is more fulfilling than hiding… Strength and resilience are the rewards for being vulnerable, as there can be no transformation without vulnerability. In the Tao te Ching, Lao Tzu tells us that everything brittle breaks, only the soft and fluid endure. The courage we need resides in leaning into life and holding nothing back. Though we can be hurt by entering the stream of life, only through that immersion can we experience life to its fullest. That fullness and malleability are key to thriving while surviving.
BELIEFNET: The modern era has been described as suffering from an “epidemic of loneliness.” What do you think is causing that? Why have we been losing out on our connections with others? How do we fix that? How did historical societies battle such an “epidemic “or did they not suffer from it? If the latter, why?
MN: Human beings have always struggled between their innate need for solitude and their equally innate need for community. Like whales and dolphins that break surface only to dive back into the deep, each generation and culture has to find its own rhythm between solitude and community. Both are necessary. I think all cultures have experienced loneliness. But the modern epidemic of loneliness has manifest since the Industrial age… It’s not the industrialization and technology that we’ve created that are the problem, but how we’ve turned industrialization and technology into the modern gods that we serve. This misplaced devotion has estranged us from our basic nature and made us incredibly lonely… Today, we can begin by admitting we are lonely and reaching out. And like early indigenous cultures, we can stop denying our connection to all forms of life.
BELIEFNET: You mention how important it is to find a companion. How can people best find those important connections when so many people change cities, states and even countries so often? How can people best find connections when they are the “newbie” in an area? How can they best preserve the connections they left behind?
MN: A crucial challenge of our age is to develop the respectful art of meaningful invitation, which will lead to relationship. We currently experience the extremes of having a small tribe of trusted others who we can be completely ourselves with or we stay hidden in the streets. It was the Swedish philosopher Kierkegaard who said, “We are all spies for God.” I think he means that we hide our true nature when going out of the house. Ultimately, this is stifling to the spirit.
In the narrative of Jesus, Nicodemus was a Pharisee who pursued conversations with Jesus alone at night. But in the day time, he denied his associations and conversations with him. Nicodemus represents our social mediating voice that refuses to acknowledge our conversations with life’s deepest forces. All this to say that, no matter where we live, life requires us to be who we are everywhere, and to summon the quiet courage not to hide the truth of our experience and questions, which brings us back to being vulnerable.
This leads me to close with a poem of mine:
If You Want a True Friend
Just open your hands and say, “I don’t know.”
Say it softly and wait, so your other can see
that you mean it. Give them a chance to
drop what they think is secret. Let them
come up with a cup of what matters from
the spring they show no one. Let them sigh
and admit that they don’t know either. Then
you can begin with nothing in the way. Go
on. Admit to the throb you carry in your
heart. And let the journey begin.
Read more in “More Together Than Alone,” on sale July 17.