By Major General U.S. Army (RET) Paulette Risher
President/CEO, Still Serving Veterans
The expression “I have your back” is commonly used in the Veteran community and beyond. Apparently, the expression heralds back to the time when warriors fighting with swords literally stood back-to-back in mutual support and protection. However, for me, I like the powerful metaphor about this “circle of safety” found in the sixth century B.C. Aesop fable of the four oxen. The story goes on the Savannah there were four large adult oxen who stood tail-to-tail creating an impenetrable circle of horns. United, they were able to fend off the hungry lion. However, over time the oxen began to quarrel among themselves and wandered off alone where they were individually easy prey for the lion.
As Veterans and others know from practical experience, being a member of a strong team brings not only better mission accomplishment but a sense of purpose, identity, and both physical and psychological safety. We feel connected, respected, and part of something worthwhile beyond ourselves. However, unfortunately many of us may know from experience that when that “circle of safety” is weakened by self-interest, territoriality, incompetence, lack of communication, or just plain neglect that not just the mission that is at risk, but so too is the sense of well-being of each person.
Over the last few years, as an organizational psychologist and in my work with Still Serving Veterans, I have come to believe strongly that social connection and the feeling that someone has our back, is fundamental to our individual and collective wellbeing. This is true for all of us, not just Veterans.
There is significant research which shows that when we feel socially isolated that it has the same deleterious effect on our health as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Note, that it is “feeling” socially isolated, not necessarily “being” socially isolated. When we feel invisible, unloved, uncared for, and vulnerable we are highly susceptible to physical and mental illnesses, as well as premature cognitive decline. We are like the oxen wandering off by ourselves.
So, what might we do to increase our own and our community’s social connectedness? Obviously, this will look different for each of us, but here are three ways of engaging that have proven effective. First, consciously expand our human-to-human, face-to-face connections. Put down our smart phones and actually talk with people. Second, and this may seem trite, but it is not, “smile and wave.” This simple act of acknowledging the presence and humanity of another person, actually increases the flow of positive chemicals in their (and our) systems. Finally, if you encounter someone who is struggling, take the time to engage with them. If you are seriously concerned about their safety, call 911 for medical help or the new 988 line for mental health support. Actions like these clearly show that we indeed do have each other’s back and can save a life.