Half a dozen fire fighters washing a great pumper truck – I can’t believe I didn’t take their picture! But I know if I had, I would have been intruding on a moment between them. It was none of my business. All I could do was smile and keep it moving. I know the life of a fire fighter isn’t easy. But from what I could tell, they knew very well the key ingredients to making it work. The laughter and the apparent ease shared between them suggested to me that trust and a sense of support may have something to do with it. Their ups, their downs, and their in-betweens shared together can create a sense of acceptance and understanding that is considered to be protective physically, emotionally and mentally.
I can somewhat relate to the fire fighters. Some of my best memories are from my almost 15 years working in the state’s juvenile correctional centers. I can tell you some stories. Within my first few months, I witnessed one resident literally pick up another by the throat, pinning him to the cinderblock wall. But then I witnessed staff effectively swoop in, and very quickly de-escalate and contain the situation. My shock paralyzed me and left me essentially useless, while the case managers and other treatment providers finished the job of re-establishing a calm and safe environment, and extinguishing any remaining embers so that no other “fires” were stoked. And then, they had to deal with me. I was a mess. I could not believe the violence that I had witnessed. But more than that, I could not believe how under control everyone else had been. They talked me down, cracked some irreverent jokes, and we laughed. And that was it. From that day forward, I was a part of the team. I understood what needed to be done and felt completely safe and cared for in an environment that months before had been foreign and scary. The key for me was that I wasn’t alone. I was part of something that was making a difference and I was proud. My guess is that anyone in the schools, social services, hospitals, nursing homes, law enforcement, mental health, or any other human services can relate.
“Thriving through adversity” is how The Society for Personality and Social Psychology describes the function of these types of relationships. Whether with our friends, family, co-workers, or our community, relationships can help buffer the negative effects of stress in our environments, allowing us to “flourish either because of or in spite of” our circumstances. In other cases, our relationships can “support thriving in the absence of adversity by promoting full participation in life opportunities for exploration, growth, and personal achievement”. That is the goal. So many of us are searching for our happy place, beyond the stressors of life. While love and connection are associated with longevity and quality of life, loneliness can be considered a stressor in itself. Harvard researchers have reported that “People who are more isolated than they want to be are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain function declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.”
Maybe you don’t want to be a fire fighter, but you can still be intentional in connecting with others. This can be as simple as picking up the phone to talk to a friend or family member, turning off the television or putting down your smart phone to engage in some eye contact and meaningful conversation, or even picking a winning team during this March Madness.
However you do it, do it together.