Today, our culture is in crisis. Many people have retreated to their ideological bunkers to hate from afar, dehumanizing others rather than risk having real, meaningful conversations across their differences.
How will we find our way back to each other?
It’s not by staying in our factions and echo chambers, pressured to conform to whatever viewpoints and ways of being are acceptable to our political and social groups. Instead, it will take a willingness to share our authentic stories, opinions, and selves, even when putting ourselves out there seems lonely.
However, our belief in that connection is constantly tested and repeatedly severed. According to my research and interviews with thousands of people, one way to bolster that belief is to seek out everyday moments of collective joy and pain with strangers—moments that remind us of our common humanity, a foundation that can support us later when we find ourselves in conflict. We have to catch enough glimpses of people connecting to one another and experiencing shared emotion that we believe in our inextricable connection.
A couple of years ago, I watched a YouTube video of 95,000 Australian fans of the Liverpool Football Club gathered at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for a soccer match. For two minutes, a stadium of Liverpool fans swayed in unison as they sang the club’s famous anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” red scarves held high over their heads and tears streaming down many of their faces.
I was surprised to find myself fighting back my own tears. And based on the video’s six million views, you can be sure that it wasn’t just Liverpool fans, or even soccer fans, who found themselves misty-eyed and covered in goosebumps. In fact, the first comment on YouTube was from a user named “Manchester United Fan Prez”—Manchester being one of Liverpool’s greatest rivals. The comment simply read: RESPECT.
Regardless of which team we’re rooting for, the power of collective joy can transcend that division. In the interviews with my own research participants, music emerged as one of the most powerful conveners of collective joy and pain. It’s often at the heart of celebrations, spiritual gatherings, funerals, and protest movements.
The day after watching that video, my husband Steve and I made a commitment to make more time for football games (of the Texas variety), live music, and plays. In the age of YouTube, I’d started to forget what those moments felt like. And being there in person is so much more powerful.
I know exactly where I was on January 28, 1986.
I was driving down FM 1960, a busy four-lane thoroughfare in Houston, Texas. Suddenly, cars started pulling over to the curb. A few actually stopped right in the middle of their lane. My first thought was that a fire truck or ambulance must be coming from behind us. I slowed down to a crawl, but I couldn’t see the lights of an emergency vehicle.
As I rolled past a pickup truck at the curb, I glanced inside the cab and saw a man leaning on his steering wheel with his head buried in his hands. I immediately thought, We’re at war. I pulled over in front of him and turned on the radio just in time to hear the announcer say, “Again, the space shuttle Challenger has exploded.”
No. No. No. No. I started crying. I saw more people pulling over. Some were even getting out of their cars. It was as if people were desperate to bear witness to this tragedy with others—to not have to know this alone.
In Houston, home of the Johnson Space Center, NASA is not just a beacon of possibility in space exploration—it’s where our friends and neighbors work. These are our people. Christa McAuliffe was going to be the first teacher in space. Teachers everywhere are our people.
After five or ten minutes, cars started moving again. But now as they made their way back into normal traffic, they had headlights on. No one on the radio said, “Turn your lights on if you’re driving.” Somehow, we instinctively knew that we were all part of this procession of grief.
I didn’t know those people or even talk to them, but if you ask where I was when the Challenger disaster happened, I will say, “I was with my people—the people of FM 1960.”
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