Don't Go It Alone
You were made for connection...
“I’ve been doing more existing rather than living,” explained the veteran. “I am hoping this will get me living again.” An interviewer was asking new recruits to 23V Recon—a 14-week reconditioning program for veterans—what they hoped to get out of the upcoming experience, and this was one man’s response. Although this person’s answer was not surprising, given that the battle-scarred vet enrolled in the program to heal from PTSD and other trauma-induced wounds, his comment jumped out at me. I started to wonder how many people are also just existing rather than truly living. Certainly, one doesn’t need to have been to war to suffer from big traumas, little traumas, and all kinds of hardships in between. If you haven’t walked through situations, if not seasons of heartache and struggle, you certainly are the anomaly. Life can wear you down, especially if you go it alone. You see, aloneness is not part of our design.
Neurobiologist and psychiatrist Curt Thompson, M.D., explains why he believes God said that it’s not good for man to be alone. First, God himself is a triune being: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in perfect community with each other. Given that man is created in the image of God, it only makes sense that God would create man for community as well.
To further emphasize the requirement for community, God created the human brain to need a relational connection to develop properly. In other words, relationships with others help our brains become fully integrated. (Hello, family!) Thompson explains that people need to be known by others so they can get to know themselves. Indeed, separation from others is downright harmful to our integration. This is why Thompson is often quoted as saying, “Humans come into this world looking for someone who is looking for them.” The need for others is written into our very DNA; to ignore that need is to our detriment. Sadly, many people do it anyway.
If we need to be connected to others for our brains to develop, it only makes sense that connection would also be a requirement for healing. A foundational piece of the 23V Recon program is building tight bonds between the men and women on the course so that they learn to trust each other as they did in the military. Each aspect of the program—whether it be the outdoor wellness adventure, the crossfit/positive psychology sessions or the trigger association sessions—is all dependent on the positive connections that are being fostered amongst the vets and the civilians who volunteer for the program. Taking vets out of their comfort zone by putting them in kayaks or in the wilderness with a ready-made group to cheer them on helps make every physical and emotional challenge not only bearable but downright fun. One veteran summarized his 6-day kayak experience by saying this: “I’m tired; I’m sucking air but man, I’m loving it!”
Because my son Mike worked with these veterans as part of his employment with Outward Bound—the leading provider of outdoor education programs in the U.S.—I got to know of 23V Recon’s work firsthand. I wasn’t surprised when he told me that the veterans were his favorite group to work with. At first, I thought that was because both my husband and I are veterans, but that wasn’t the case. As I listened to Mike’s stories and watched the documentary about the group’s journey, I could see that there was more to it than that. The trauma that each vet experienced and the subsequent impact it had on their physical, emotional, and relational well-being was significant. I suspect that the guys intuitively knew they needed each other to heal, and as a consequence, they were all in. One man put it this way: “Rebuilding that family-type connection with a bunch of strangers showed me that I can build that connection in everyday life. I realized that everybody can be family. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, but it allowed me to approach life with more authenticity and acceptance for myself and others.”
Perhaps one of the most impactful parts of the 23V Recon documentary was seeing how the veterans faced some of the more directly challenging parts of the program: going to a shooting range. As you can imagine, handling guns and experiencing the blast of them being shot had the potential to cause terror-inducing flashbacks. However, as trusted team members gathered around to support them, the veterans were able to experience these common negative triggers from their military life in a now-positive environment. Doing so allowed the brain to re-associate previously negative triggers with new, positive, and trusting memories. Watching the veterans learn to handle guns again with the tangible support of a friendly hand on their back was very moving. This is a powerful metaphor for what we all need when we are attempting a new challenge or undergoing the hard work of healing. We need a comforting hand on our shoulder to remind us we’re not alone.
So why am I telling you all of this? Well, quite frankly, it’s out of concern. I recently came across the Surgeon General’s report on loneliness and isolation. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy had this to say: “Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight – one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives”. He continued, “Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders. Together, we can build a country that’s healthier, more resilient, less lonely, and more connected.” What this tells me is that 23V Recon is on to something.
One graduate from 23V Recon shared how his life had changed after participating in 14 weeks of intentional community: “Everything is different. The nightmares are down by 90%. I don’t feel anxious when I wake up in the morning. I am happy. I haven’t smiled like this in years.”
What does this mean for us? Dr. Curt Thompson emphasizes that we all need a space where we can dump our mistakes and fears so we don't carry them as a never-ending burden and then have to medicate to cope. He also says that we should have at least three people in our lives who know everything about us so we are not vulnerable to either over-regulating our external world (like controlling food and exercise) or medicating our pain (through scrolling on devices, over-consuming substances, or comforting ourselves with sexual encounters, food or alcohol.) Oi vey! Can you relate?
“For where two or three are gathered together in my Name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt 18:20)
As you consider your goals and priorities for 2024, I encourage you to think about what you could do to build deeper connections in your life. As the Surgeon General has emphasized, our health and well-being depend on it. Below are a few ideas to get you started:
Commit to meeting a friend once a week to talk intentionally. Texting is fine to say hello, but meaningful relationships are built on vulnerability and intimacy. Face-to-face or phone conversations work better than text.
Speaking of intimacy, commit to learning how to share your heart (In-To-Me-You-See) with at least one other person. This means sharing your emotions and feelings. If you are married, this ideally should be your spouse. If you don’t know how to get started, I invite you to reach out. Jeff and I are running Relationship Labs to support you on your journey.
Join or lead a small group whose goal is to build community. (Reading and discussing books or even the Bible with people who remain strangers will not help you.) If you do not know of a small group designed to build community—I do! In February, I am starting a support group for women called Better Together. I am SO excited to create a space for women to mutually support one another. For my male readers (yes, there is more than one of you!), if you are interested in a men’s group, please let me know. If there is enough interest, Jeff is willing to host one.
Join a small volunteer team.
Build a relationship with someone who lives in a nursing home.
Whatever you do, make a plan. Creating time and space to build relational connections takes practice - it most often will not happen by accident or by changing nothing. Be intentional and follow through.
Please reach out if I can help you on your journey. Let 2024 be a year of intimacy and connection!