Perhaps because I'm not working in an office any longer, and therefore have much more solitary time, my contacts with people seem much more charged. This is mostly wonderful; I feel more engaged and focused on the pleasure of anyone's company. Two things recently happened that reminded me why it is so important to watch who you tangle with--our interactions most certainly have an effect on our health, but in the mad swirl of everyday activity, we lose track of that, so the negativity works insidiously and catches up with us when we aren't looking.
In the first case, I opened up a mean-spirited comment from an anonymous poster on this blog. It was particularly upsetting because it was in response to a very honest and open post on depression. As I read, panic fluttered up inside me, my mouth went dry, my heart began to pound, and I felt frozen. (Yes, strangers have that power--and when friends turn mean, it is even worse.) My pulse raced--flight! Get away! Danger! Then anger surged through me--how dare this person defile my house! Fight! I calmed myself down, went outside, walked it off, and felt better. But the rush of adrenaline and cortisol stressed me out. Too much of that, day in and day out (as in, high stress job in merciless company, etc.) must take a toll; I had tuned it out for years, but the corrosion went on nonetheless.
In the second case, I was walking along a very busy Manhattan street. A frail, elderly man was shuffling through a crosswalk ahead of me. He was holding hands with an adolescent woman who was clearly mentally handicapped--but functional enough to understand traffic lights. When the light began to blink a change, she grew anxious, tugging on the old man's hand with increasing urgency, and yelling at him to move faster. He couldn't. Cars began honking. I stepped into the crosswalk, held up my hand like a traffic cop, and stopped the cars in both directions until the man and his companion could get across. It took two light changes. I was simply astonished at how rude some drivers were, and at how valiant and determined the old man and the young girl were. They made it across, and then so did I. When I stepped onto the sidewalk, a man around my age who had been watching it all smiled hugely and said, simply, "Thank you for doing that." A powerful rush of something--good heart? love? relief? gratitude that I could help?--flowed through me; I felt lit up. This feeling suffused my entire being, and I floated through the day--literally, it lasted that long, and was that strong.
These hormonal (is that what they are?) responses to negative and positive acts are supercharged. They add up. I know there are technical, scientific terms for what happened--I read all those articles about stress. But it is quite another thing to experience them. How do we build more "lending a hand" moments into the day? And learn to avoid toxic encounters?
All this reminds me of a very long conversation I once had with Theo, my younger son, who is philosophically inclined, and temperamentally oppositional. He was about 10 at the time. The gist of it was: I was talking about love and my heart, and he said, no, love comes from the brain, not the heart. All emotion comes from the brain--that's scientific, Mom. I said, then why do I feel it in my heart? And why do we draw pictures of hearts with arrows in them, not brains with initials on them? He said, well, maybe Moms' hearts are different. I love that. With all my heart.