Let’s Lighten Up This Summer!
With the return of summery weather, the decrease in virus infection rate, the peace of mind being vaccinated, and the CDC relaxation of restrictions on activity of those vaccinated, it feels like the pandemic fog is lifting just a bit. Possibilities are visible that haven’t been visible for a while. Theaters are beginning to reopen. People are socializing in each other’s homes. We’re eating out in restaurants with friends again. There are viral threats still out there to be sure. A dangerous variant that is resistant to vaccines could appear. But the technology is in place to respond quickly. We’re learning how to live with the ongoing threat of COVID-19 hoping we’ll not see COVID-21 or 22 any time soon.
It may be only from this perspective that we fully appreciate the heightened stress and anxiety we’ve been through. Parents know it better than anyone coping with children at home 24/7, dealing with online education and social restrictions. Thankfully, now they can be outside playing sports again and resuming somewhat normal levels of activity. The promise of returning to school again in the fall and camps open this summer promises some level of return to sanity.
We just remembered George Floyd’s murder on Tuesday a year ago and the release of rage over the police officer Derek Chauvin’s cruelty and callousness. While we haven’t witnessed the level of reform hoped for or promised, the protests, agitation and the debate haven’t stopped. I’m not sure we would have seen the level of sympathetic response around the country if White Americans weren’t quarantined in their homes and forced to confront what for many Black Americans can be a daily reality of danger and anxiety.
The highly charged Presidential election mixed with the year of pandemic has made us far more reactive. A recent Jeopardy! three time champion named Kelly Donohue was accused of using a subtle white supremacy hand signal during the beginning of the show. A group of over 450 former Jeopardy contestants asked why the gesture had not been edited out of the show and demanded Donohue apologize for using the signal. Donohue said he was simply using his fingers to show he had won three times in a bragging gesture. Whether intended or not, Forbes Magazine states the gesture he used has indeed been adopted by white supremacists as a way to signal their nefarious intent to their fellow racists, while retaining plausible deniability. The source was a prank conceived by dastardly 4Chan users and known as “Operation O-KKK.”
The Democracy threatening events of January 6th also ratcheted up the fear level. Fortunately, that level has gone down enough to have barriers on State Street and fencing in front of the New York State Capitol removed. But the ease with which people walked around the Capitol Building in Washington DC will not return soon, if ever. Four years of daily outrage from the White House pitting us against them has hardened people’s opinions of each other. The concept of civil debate on issues seems impossible in confrontations of vitriolic rage.
This past election was incredibly polarizing. People aren’t disagreeing about tax or foreign policy, the differences between parties are ones of basic morality, core values and character. People are ending relationships with family members over how they view police brutality vs looting. A retired professor, a sexual assault survivor, couldn’t tolerate a continuation of a 40 year friendship when her now ex-friend supported Brett Kavanaugh’s denial of sexual assault allegations with the words, “Oh, you drank the Kool-Aid,” and “Kavanaugh didn’t do anything.” On the other side, a 61-year-old steelworker strongly invested in the values of liberty complained before the election, “The [libs] sold our country out. It made me sick. If this is his core ethics, I don’t want that kind of person in my life.”
How can we hope to cross these divides between people, lower the emotional temperature and find a way to be in conversation and dialogue again? One way I’d like to suggest is by playing and having fun together. What is missing from public discourse is a sense of playfulness and levity, a sense of fun and enjoyment.
Some of you may remember my Sunday service doing laughing yoga. Well, maybe they need to do a little laughing yoga at the Capitol in Washington DC to lighten the mood just a little. Laughter is documented to reduce blood pressure, increase oxygen uptake, improve the immune system and concentration and stimulate better heart health.
In relationships, genuine laughter that is shared can communicate to others that we have a similar worldview, which strengthens relationships. In one experiment, shared laughter had consistent effects on the participant’s sense of similarity and that had an effect on how much they felt an affinity with their partner. Social Psychologist Sara Algoe commented on the experiment, “For people who are laughing together, shared laughter signals that they see the world in the same way, and it momentarily boosts their sense of connection.”
Such is the challenge of today’s polarization because Americans do share quite a lot in common even if they have some strong differences of opinion. It is that super reactivity to our differences that has gone off the charts and washes away so many of our similarities. There are baseline commonalities of being human that potentially serve as bridges between those differences.
So as the summer is upon us, let us be a little less serious and be willing to play with each other just a little more. I anticipate that might help point us toward greater national healing that might even help end the pandemic.