For thirty years my attention has been focused on people who are marginalized in our culture. People who are physically, mentally, or addictively ill; people who have no home; people who are isolated in their homes; people who are dying.

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I’m not a social activist, and I don’t know how to fix our social problems. I don’t know how to make our margins disappear. I don’t know what can be done for those huge numbers of marginalized people – EXCEPT for what I have done for thirty years: BE with them.

“Just-be-with” is a hard sell in our society. We prefer Nike’s “Just Do It.” We’d far rather DO something, anything, than feel helpless in the presence of another’s dysfunction, discomfort, or pain.

But scientific research is making a new case for being-with.

It also makes the case for the corollary  that an astute homeless woman said to me in a downtown San Francisco park: “It’s reciprocal, isn’t it.” Whatever positive emotions and human connection she had experienced as we were together, were returned to me through her eyes, and through her calloused hand touching my arm.

Psychologist Barbara Frederickson (interviewed by Angela Winter in the July 2014 issue of The Sun) says, “When we are really attuned to another person, we take part in this almost imperceptible dance. . . . this can bring a powerful sense of oneness,” what Frederickson has coined as “positivity resonance.” Like the vibrating of cello strings that are attuned to and amplify each other, this resonance is greater than its individual parts.

Frederickson’s research shows that whether we are sharing an intimate conversation with a friend or making brief eye contact and sharing a smile with a stranger, positivity resonance can improve the health of both people.

But the tricky part is, this sharing has to be done in person. Or at the very least in real time. Texting doesn’t create positivity resonance, but phone conversations do. Just being around a group of others isn’t enough, but connecting with someone in that group is. Most effective of all is making eye contact, and briefly and appropriately touching. In the few seconds at a stoplight, when you roll down the car window and give a dollar to a street beggar and grasp his hand briefly as the dollar is exchanged, a positivity resonance is created between you. Or, at that same stoplight, if you turn to the driver of the car next to you and offer a smile that is returned, the resonance happens.

So what can we do about the problems of our social margins?

By definition, social margins are where people are divided off from the rest of society, deprived of affirmation, kindness, unconditional being-with. But what if once a month each of us went to a hospital, or a hospice, or a homeless shelter, or any of the multitude of places where marginalized people are gathered at the edges of our society (or even to the house next door where that old woman lives alone)?

What if we went with empty hands, intending to give nothing but attention and a gentle touch, with no plan except to be-with; to offer – and allow – a “positivity resonance” to happen?

What if we believed – or at least hoped – that this is enough, and that by this simple act we, and those with whom we connect, will have helped to erase a few inches of a margin that divides us from each other?

Positivity resonance.

Being-with.

For decades I have known, and the homeless woman in the park knew, and now, it seems, science is learning: BEING-WITH IS HEALING.

When we feel empty, being-with can replenish us.

When we feel as if we have nothing, being-with is the gift we can give.

When we feel helpless, being-with is enough.

Frederickson, a scientist, is even bold enough to name this being-with, this positivity resonance, “love.”

14 replies
  1. Kay
    Kay says:

    Thank you! Your experiences helped me to know when I smile and are kind to the people I assist at work it does make a difference. Now I need to take the next step and visit a lonely person or marginal person on my own time not just at work.

    Reply
  2. Eileen Soskin
    Eileen Soskin says:

    Love is the answer and also the question. Thanks for this nourishing and well-written post, Cynthia. I need constant reminders!

    Reply
  3. Eileen
    Eileen says:

    wonderful awareness of our oneness and how we can do our little part to help connect and reinforce that concept! “Positivity resonance” is good to know, even better to practice, and best to experience. I shall look into my fellow sister’s and brother’s eyes and connect!

    Reply
  4. Karen
    Karen says:

    Being with is indeed healing….being with self, being with other, being with rock or tree, being with not knowing, being with the soulful remembering of who we all are, being with being….. :- )

    Reply
  5. Chris
    Chris says:

    Great blog, Cynthia! I think “positivity resonance” can also be applied to times when I am able to connect self to Self in my better moments on solo retreat. It is a gift I can experience with others but also with myself.

    Reply
  6. ann eyerman
    ann eyerman says:

    I so believe this. I see it every time I tell someone on the streetcar that I like their hair or their purse or the book they’re reading. I can see immediately a melting of those public defences we who live in big cities put up for protection. I always get off feeling better than when I got on. But yesterday, I was not so receptive. The only seat on the streetcar was beside a homeless fellow. He moved his coat for me and I sat down but I felt uncomfortable. Honestly, I thought of bed bugs. He also smelled really ripe so I shifted my body so I was facing the aisle. When I got off I felt sad for what I had done to this human being. I definitely was not being-with. I hope the next time I have the opportunity, I’ll respond differently but I don’t know if I will.

    Reply
  7. Ruth
    Ruth says:

    In the current troubled world, it’s very hard to look into the eyes of ISIS or our political opponents or the greedy persons determining our future. No access. So the movement toward positivity resonance necessarily must build from the bottom up, from those around us who are closest and from each seemingly minute and unimportant meeting. I am building positivity resonance every chance I can, practicing in the smallest encounter, hoping to build understanding, compassion and unity in the process. It’s the hardest work I have ever done. And if we all practiced and dedicated ourselves to this hard work, the world would shift. Amen to all you have so eloquently written. Thank you.

    Reply
  8. MJ
    MJ says:

    Positivity resonance…the touch , the smile, the looking into the eyes of another…intentionally, with care that says “you matter”…such an easy thing we can do, isn’t it? And it is reciprocal. How magnifying! Thank you for this terminology….positivity resonance…I’m going to carry this in my pocket.

    Reply

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