The Insularity Complex
Or, what I learned from Elle magazine this week
Among all the crappy ideas that came out of the White House in its first week, the story that most caught my attention was an article in Elle magazine. Yes, the magazine about fashion and beauty and celebrity friendships, with recent stories about mushroom as the next trend color and silicone makeup sponges being worth the hype.
It was a beautifully researched piece by freelance writer Bryce Covert about why having a child will bankrupt you. She wrote that in 28 states and Washington D.C., “sending an infant to day care costs more than sending an 18-year-old to public college. The price tag has been climbing at an extraordinary rate: The cost for families with a working mother rose 70 percent between 1985 and 2012.”
She notes that in 1971 the idea of accessible, affordable childcare in the United States died, at the hands of a ‘family values’ movement that prompted President Nixon to veto a bill that would have committed “the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing” because of the fear of “family-weakening implications.”
In other words — keep women at home.
It wasn’t always that way, Covert wrote. When men were shipped off to World War II, and mothers were required to work, some children were locked in cars adjacent to factories, chained to temporary trailer homes and left in movie theaters, according to a 2013 discussion paper written by Arizona State University’s Chris Herbst. The Lanham Act enabled communities to build and staff a network of childcare centers for people of all income levels : it was roughly $10 a day in today’s dollars, for 12 hours of care, throughout the U.S., with qualified teachers trained by local universities in childhood education, with a child-to-teacher ratio of 10 to 1. Earnings, employment, college degrees and other economic and educational standards were measurably higher for those kids in later years.
The program was ended by President Truman after the war ended.
The concept that rears its illogical head in so many areas — childcare being one — is that we are a nation of individuals who do things best in small units, where one man and one woman raise a perfect family on their own, and that child grows up to be a meaningful cog in the wheel of financial progress. That it is more acceptable for individual families to be decimated by cancer or mental illness and go bankrupt paying for healthcare than it is to share the cost of preventive care and hospitalization. That our one country doesn’t need other countries for trade, and borders are meaningful ways to segregate human beings — kind of like rooting for different football teams is a useful way to establish identity.
Taken to its logical conclusion, that also means we should all be home-schooling our children, filling the potholes on our streets, and reverting to self-diagnosis and medicinal herbs to treat ourselves. To each his own, as they say.
In reality, not even our own bodies are structured as independent entities, much as it is easier to think otherwise. And I’m not talking about the predilection of men to feel they have the right to touch and legislate women’s bodies without permission.
I’m talking about the fact that our bodies consist of about $1 worth of chemicals, with cells that are replaced every few years. That even our cells are communities of smaller things, transforming continuously — no individual “owns” them. Bacteria, pheromones, sweat, breath are all methods of transfer. Nothing about the make-up of our foundation is permanently “me,” but, rather, is part of the “we.” Everything we are, and everything around us, and everything in the universe, is a constellation of bits moving together as one.
We create separation in the mind. And, as we are daily reminded, the mind often doesn’t know what it’s seeing or talking about, let alone where one thing supposedly “ends” and another begins. [For a fun explanation of this visit the Brain Games website.]
Even ants seem to have a smarter instinct for how to build and sustain communities than humans do. As one researcher noted, the behavior of an ant community resembles the organization of neurons into a functioning brain. “Each neuron is relatively dumb, but if you take billions of neurons, they interact in a way that we have only scratched the surface of understanding,” said Bert Hölldobler, an evolutionary biologist, also at Arizona State University.
The theoretical physicist and popular author Carlo Rovelli put it this way in the science communication journal Metode: “Science is going more and more towards linking the world in terms of interactions … To understand ourselves better, we cannot see ourselves in terms of personal isolation. The same is true for fundamental physics: elementary particles are better understood through the way they interact.”
At its deepest level, he said, the building blocks of everything we produce — matter — is not a “thing” but a way of “vibrating, something very different from what we thought.”
The groups that gather to protest political policies and individual peculiarities of thought are vibrating. Those who encourage our children to grow strong in villages, rather than isolated homes, are aware of vibration. Healthcare that takes care of its community members at greatest need is about vibration.
Rape survivor Sarah Super — who is leading a movement to break the silence around the common experiences of sexual assault — told me this: “What is actually healing people from atrocities is the most simple nurturing. The kind mother, the voice that sings to the baby, the loving attachment of a child, the rhythm of singing as a community, the movement of yoga or dance, the resilience of the human spirit when we move in synchronicity with others.”
That’s vibration. That’s the power of community over insular thinking.
Mikki Morrissette is the author of “Attainable We” — a forthcoming book and website in progress — about the science of what connects us.