'I still believe in silver linings'

Beth Cooper Howell recommends a dose of charity and kindness to fight the infection of negativity


I’ve recently taken to avoiding both online comment and newspaper letter sections until well after breakfast.
This is not an ostrich-head-sand approach; I’ve faced far worse than whining and bleating about scratched lampposts or poor restaurant meals.
However, silver linings are running themes in my life and, incidentally, this column.
There is much to moan about – we know that. But equally, there’s far more to celebrate than we’re being led to believe.
Several years ago, I noted that we seemed to be lurching from one crime or disaster to another, if media reports were true.
Expatriates named and shamed us and I’ve watched, many times, a nation being tarnished (both internally and internationally), lambasted and split; its sunny, Mandela-painted reputation blotted.
Not much has changed.
But then, as now, I’ve also noticed an incredible force at work. Something biological, perhaps, rooted in nature; or possibly a sign that in South Africa, and everywhere, really, community is an action word, not just a concept.
In times of crisis, people become their true selves. Perhaps, says Maia Szalvitz, a TIME magazine neuroscience journalist, it is because we are wired this way.
“Our brains are designed so that our stress systems can be soothed by social support: in response to the calming words or gentle touch of loved ones, for example, the bonding hormone oxytocin tends to lower levels of stress hormones.
"We learn this from infancy from our parents or caregivers; as we grow, our stress systems remain intricately linked to the presence of others who can provide comfort and relief from anxiety.”
Szalvitz says that many studies now show that strong social support extends life and improves health.
During disasters, our “social networks largely determine our fates: the more connections we have and the stronger our bonds are to each other, the more likely we are to survive, not just physically but emotionally. To prevent and treat post-traumatic stress disorder, these ties are the best medicine. It’s when we face the toughest times that our true nature reveals itself.”
On social media, at church, in marches and during conversations with friends, thousands of people tune into this biological wiring by joining together for a common cause in a world gone mad.
If we’re innately built to give comfort and support in a time of crisis, then that is what we should do.
A kind word, a smile for a stranger, or an upbeat chat about the weather while shopping – these, together with charity and good works, are the most powerful antidote to doomsday prophecy and those who would have us assume that all is lost.

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