Wednesday, December 23, 2015

When There Is Pain, We Swarm

When humans are injured, our bodies release endogenous opioid neuropeptides, otherwise known as endorphins, a type of neurotransmitter, a morphine-like substance that is produced in times of stress, fear, or pain to suppress the transmission of pain signals to the brain, even creating a state of euphoria as one might expect from an opioid.

When invaded by foreign objects like bacteria or viruses, our bodies produce proteins called immunoglobulins, or antibodies, that neutralize the invading organisms, killing them and removing them from our bodies.

When I think of endorphins and antibodies I always imagine them swarming to the scene.

On Monday night, I attended the 27th annual Feast of the Winter Solstice, hosted as always by our very own Fremont Arts Council, an event I've written about before (here and here). As I mentioned yesterday, this is the dark season for these festivals of light, times when we "swarm" together with our friends and families to love one another through the long dark nights. 

Between the performances, dancing, rituals, and feasting, we talk. At one point during the evening I found myself with Denise (scroll down to the second profile), a woman who I call a friend if only because we've now been crossing paths for nearly two decades. She is a miracle, this woman. The reason I've not gotten to know her better over the years is because she is a political performance artist who has in recent years become one of our region's leading environmental activists and when I see her she's usually right up to her elbows in her life's work, not available for chit-chat. Monday night was unusual in that she wasn't operating a giant puppet or organizing a kayak flotilla or building a parade float. I knew that she had just returned from the United Nations climate summit in Paris where she had, as she always does, engaged in creative, peaceful activism. 

I told her she was one of my heroes and she shared the stories from her trip. She always seems flush with life, but now she seemed even more so, euphoric even. She explained that as a troupe of artists they had enjoyed access to places and people from which "protesters" and more traditional activists were barred. She was one of thousands of regular citizens who swarmed to Paris along with the politicians and public figures. 

On her final day in Paris, she and her fellow travelers made a pilgrimage to one of the sites of the recent terrorist attacks. She described the makeshift memorials that were "everywhere," of how people where treating one another better in the aftermath of the tragedy, with more civility, more compassion. As she spoke, Mister Rogers' words came to me:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."

In that moment I imagined how it had happened. People had swarmed there, and were still swarming there, like endorphins or antibodies, racing to the scene of the tragedy to be helpers, to suppress the pain, to kill the virus, replacing the horror with the euphoria of human love. We see this phenomenon over and over, and while our news media focuses on the scary things, the rest of us are swarming to the scene. Forget the cynics and fear-mongers, this is the greatest truth about human beings: when there is pain, we swarm. You will always find people who are helping.

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