Being animals, we humans walk about with a cocktail of chemicals in our brains. These chemicals influence, if not completely dictate, much of our day-to-day emotional state, and the release of these chemicals (or lack thereof) is frequently controlled by environment.
In times of crisis, for example, we release endorphins, and endorphins increase our tolerance to pain (both physical and psychological) as well as encouraging us to be friendly and helpful in our interactions with one another. And at the moment that the crisis ends and the pain disappears (or lessens), the endorphins don’t immediately vanish. They stick around for as much as a couple of days before gradually ebbing away, which can result in something casually called an “endorphin crash.”
Most of us know there are several ways in which a group can bond. We can have a strong common purpose; we can have shared experiences over a long period of time; or we can endure a collective reaction to a threat.
Ideally, a religious group would bond through common purpose and shared experiences. Too often, though, I witness Friends bonding through collective reaction to threat. I’m not talking about long-term threats in the outside world; I’m talking about the types of threats that feel like immediate crisis. As ridiculous as it sounds, these often come in business meetings.
An item comes up on the agenda. It might be poorly presented; it might be connected to old pain; it might simply be a matter on which we are not in agreement. We experience conflict. Sometimes, if it’s a big enough issue, we experience conflict for a period of days. We’re tense. We’re frightened. Eventually, we’re able to minute something, generally by the skin of our teeth, and we walk out of business meeting experiencing profound relief and gratitude—and probably other things, but the profound relief and gratitude are present. And, thanks to brain chemistry, we’re brimming with endorphins, which make us feel friendly and helpful and sort of temporarily numb. We go and share our final potluck in this state. We’ve been through something together; we’re bonded; we feel like we’ve grown closer as a group. (At least, most of us do. Sometimes, a few people finish this process feeling pushed out.)
I don’t want to judge the authenticity of the crisis. Sometimes, the particular question at hand is a genuine threat to the community and is a genuine emergency. But the thing is, this type of crisis-endorphins-relief cycle is addictive. It’s a dramatic way to bond a group together in a relatively short amount of time. This wouldn’t matter so much if we were together every day, all year, visiting one another’s farms and meeting up at the local general store, but we’re not. Especially in the case of regional or yearly meetings, we often only see one another a few times a year or less. Which means that if those fairly infrequent meetings are taken up by crisis enough times, crisis can quickly become our primary way of bonding as a group. We might even, unconsciously, begin to seek threats in an effort to experience that feeling again.
Obviously, this isn’t healthy. It also isn’t of God.
Endorphins seem to be one of three types of chemicals in our brains that encourage group bonding. (I’m speaking here not as a neuroscientist but as someone who’s done a fair amount of reading on the subject.) The two major influencers are endorphins and dopamine; a third, somewhat less important chemical for group social bonds, is oxytocin.
Endorphins, which cause us to feel friendly and helpful, can be triggered by a trauma, but they can also be triggered by exercise, laughter, music, and chocolate.
Dopamine directly influences how strongly we feel linked to those in our social network. When we experience high levels of dopamine (especially over time), we feel more strongly attached to the people we think of as friends. A release of dopamine can be triggered by exercise or music—and, according to one study, by cupcakes.
Oxytocin creates feelings of calm and closeness. It also crystalizes emotional memories, reduces stress, and encourages generosity. The best ways to release oxytocin aren’t super appropriate in public, but laughter, exercise, music, and hugs can help.
It would seem that if we hope to build strong, bonded faith communities, the ideal schedule for a day-long gathering would look something like this:
8am – Arrival and community singing
8:30am – Breakfast
9:15am – Communal exercise period (dance, yoga, walks)
10:00am – Worship
11:00am – Walking and singing break
12:15pm – Lunch
1:00pm – Meeting for worship for business (agenda constructed to allow opportunities for singing breaks and periodic laughter)
2:45pm – Break for chocolate cupcakes
3:00pm – Resettling through singing and communal movement
3:15pm – Meeting for worship for business
4:30pm – Cooperative games or physical work project, such as gardening
5:30pm – Dinner
6:15pm – Committee meetings (stand-up meetings encouraged as able)
7:30pm – Guest comedian
8:00pm – Sing-along or dance
9:30pm – Goodnight hugs, exit the building
Perhaps most importantly, let’s be aware of the concept of crisis addiction. Let’s talk about it. It’s rather easy to tell ourselves, “Oh, we couldn’t possibly take an extra hour for singing, because we have to deal with this crisis,” but do we fully recognize the implications of such a decision? Have we considered which activities we hope will define us as a community? Can we be aware of how those choices influence the people that we will become?