THE POPE AND I

No, I did not have an audience with the Pope. I confess that this title is a bit misleading, but you must admit it got your attention.

The Pope’s visit got everyone’s attention especially viewers of CNN, for their coverage was non-stop from arrival to departure. This must have made their bean counters happy, since I imagine their bottom line could be adversely affected were they to pay independent journalists to cover the horrors taking place in the middle-east and Africa, or the desperation of immigrants around the world.

You may be wondering why I didn’t change the channel to Fox and watch them trash democrats or MSNBC, as they did the same for republicans, or even to Sesame Street in case I wanted to learn something worthwhile. The problem is that Barb likes CNN.

Although I don’t wear a long white dress and beanie, I found his speeches interesting and even inspirational. At one point I nearly pulled a John Boehner and could feel a tear about to erupt. In most cases, his thoughts and opinions paralleled mine therefore; he must be pretty smart. In particular, his speech at the U. N. caught my attention when he talked about the need for people to bond and trust each other. I concluded that the Pope had much in common with this old Presbyterian. It occurred to me that our need to bond with each other seems to be universal and can have both good and bad consequences.

My understanding of Pope Francis's statement, which would result in people caring for each other, and in so doing to learn trust. There is little doubt that if such feelings for our fellow man were present in everyone, this world would be a much more pleasant place in which to live. Of course, this in not a novel idea. Many have espoused it for the past couple of thousand years, if not longer, but with minimal effect. In fact, religions both past and present, expect their members to meet and worship together. They usually encourage fellowship, and the experience of belonging to a caring group of people is fertile ground for the development of trusting relationships. The Pope must have felt there was a lot of bonding going on as millions flocked to hear his words and receive his blessings.

The Pope and I agree that bonding and trust are important. A very common complaint by my patients was of loneliness, and feeling a lack of connection to others. As a matter of fact, most of the perpetrators of the recent spate of mass murders are said to have been alienated from society. Notes they left reflect the anger they felt at being left out and alone. Group therapy has been a useful tool in dealing with such problems as it provides an opportunity to relate in an atmosphere where one can share in a safe environment, and learn to trust and be trusted. This need to bond appears to be so ingrained in our very nature that we sometimes look for other ways to satisfy the need. Those whose lifestyle or physical infirmities limit their relationships may find solace in a pet. There have even been instances reported in which prisoners who are isolated attempt to befriend the rats who visit their cells.

It is not clear when this need, so powerful that if unrequited may lead to suicidal or even homicidal behavior, became so ingrained in our psyche. There is evidence that earliest man  learned the advantages of close relationships. Indeed, it is likely that without such bonding, our prehistoric ancestors might not have survived, and could have become extinct as did other branches of the hominid progeny. Indeed, in a world where predators threatened their existence and competed with them for food, it would not have taken them long to realize there is safety in numbers. Likewise, as they developed carnivorous tastes they would have found that teaming with others would contribute to successful hunting. Such lessons learned were not unique to humans for many other mammals found that bonding with others of their species enhanced their chances of survival. With such a history spanning thousands of years, it should not surprise us that this need to bond would eventually become imprinted on our DNA.

There are some, myself among them, who are concerned about the ways in which our children are limited in developing relationships to which they can bond. Home schooling has become more popular and is likely to become more so as the digital world expands. I have long been concerned as I have seen the consolidation of small neighborhood schools to become institutions that are so large it is very easy for a child to be left out of the mainstream. Since K through 12 school is where children learn social skills, and develop much of their self-image, such feelings of alienation can have serious consequences. Parents face a great deal of stress sometimes working two jobs, and stay-at-home moms are less plentiful. It appears that kids spend much more time texting than talking. The rest of their free time is often spent playing video games. And, yes I know that a previous generation had the same concerns with the invention of the telephone, as my Grandson eloquently pointed out to me a few months ago. I agreed that the phone was a step down from looking one in the eye, but did preserve voice inflections and thereby we were not quite so insulated from the feelings of callers.

Most people would agree that neighborhoods are not as neighborly as they once were. The current generation prefers distance from their neighbors as witnessed by the current housing developments where larger lots are preferred and “houses are not jammed up against each other." Studies of large city apartment buildings indicate that many residents do not even recognize their neighbors. On the other hand, I did recently read that some companies are now eliminating the cubicles in which they isolated their employees, as they have decided that their workers were much more productive in an open office space. It was felt that the changes also resulted in feelings of camaraderie with coworkers, company loyalty was strengthened, and absenteeism was reduced. Such examples illustrate when barriers are removed, there is a natural tendency to bond.
Of course the ultimate bonds are those with our immediate families, but for most this does not seem to be enough. When populations grow so large that physical contact is impossible, they still find ways to bond. Witness any athletic contest and you will see groups sometimes numbering in the thousands banding together to cheer on their team and boo the bad guys. Though there are some loners among us, most seem to have a need to closely align themselves to a group or organization. There are lodges, fraternities, sororities, clubs, religious and political groups, reunions, and volunteer organizations to name a few. There seems to be an almost universal need to belong, to be attached in some way to others.

History tells us that nothing unites a group of people, whether it is a neighborhood, tribe, or country, like a common enemy. It makes little difference if the threat is real or imagined. Throughout history leaders of nations have been able to mobilize and bond their subjects by convincing them they have an enemy. Coaches have long known that their team’s success depends to a great extent on the relationships between their players, and their ability to function as a unit. Those who work in dangerous positions such as fire fighters, policemen, heavy machinery operators and such must depend on others to “watch my back;" consequently, trust is essential, and camaraderie is a prerequisite. Many religions bond together in their struggle against demonic forces of one kind or another.

Nowhere except within families is bonding more intense than in the military. Recruits soon unite by learning to hate their drill sergeant. The entire unit may be punished for the transgressions of one; thereby teaching him a sense of responsibility to his buddies. One may enter the service for a variety of reasons, but once in combat they report their allegiance is to those who fight beside them. The bonds formed are so intense that some experience grief after leaving their unit in spite of the dangers and horrors they may have faced. This sense of loss in addition to the survivor guilt often felt are undoubtedly factors which account for the epidemic of suicides by returning soldiers from our latest war. Some have volunteered for return tours of duty apparently hoping to recapture that which was lost.

It is true that relationships are not only pleasing, but probably necessary in order for us to maintain sanity. Indeed, one study from many years ago where volunteers were subjected to total isolation, all developed psychotic symptoms in as little as two weeks. It is also true that throughout the ages there have been the cunning and unscrupulous who have perverted this need of ours to service their lust for power. The mechanism as I mentioned previously is simply to convince a group of people that they have a common enemy and that they must unite to protect themselves or punish the miscreant for his alleged misdeeds. One need only to turn on the nightly news, and hear about the violence and chaos that persists throughout the world to see how successful these strategies have been as populations bond together to destroy their own version of the bad guys.

Although in the U.S. we moderns no longer have saber tooth tigers to fear, there are many who have no difficulty finding people to hate and whom we should fear. We have the white supremacists who are convinced we are in danger of being persecuted by blacks, the gun lobby who wants us to fear everyone, and other groups too numerous to mention. And let us not leave out our politicians as the republicans convince us we should fear the democrats and the democrats tell us the republicans are the ones who will do us in if given the vote. In other words, we are encouraged to choose sides, bond, and fight with each other. In order to fight we need a leader to save us, and there are always those who are gracious enough to be that person if only we will vote for him.

If I ever did have an audience with the Pope, I would enjoy discussing this bonding and trust stuff with him. I would probably agree that more bonding and trust is needed, but that in many instances those same qualities can also be used for nefarious purposes. In that vein, I can see myself saying, “Frank, be careful what you wish for” or in his case it would be more appropriate to modify the admonition by substituting the word "pray" for the word "wish."

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