Existential philosophy, and by extension, existential psychology, puts a tremendous emphasis on the interrelatedness of human beings. None of us operates in a vacuum. What we do, or do not do, has consequences on the world around us. None of this is news.
Earlier this week, I attended a Café Columbia evening, which is where members of the faculty from my alma mater, Columbia University, come to speak in informal settings with alumni, usually over wine, beer, and maybe some cheese. The speaker this week was Dr. Sandro Galea of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia. The topic was the “urban brain”—how living in urban areas affects your thinking and your health.
As a lifelong resident of cities—New York and London—I found the idea that cities can impact your brain unsurprising. Crowding into packed subway cars in the morning, bumping into people on the street because we are all moving so fast and not paying attention to others, and standing on ridiculous lines for basics like food, gasoline, and ATMs are all part of my daily existence, and often fade into the background of “just another day in New York City.”
But Galea’s talk made me much more aware of my surroundings, even as we sat listening to him in a room so crowded I was amazed the fire department did not come in and declare us a hazard. He spoke about how public health scientists are speaking of health—or more accurately, disease—as the interplay between people and their environments. Galea notes these three factors: “the physical environment, the social environment, and access to health and social services” (Galea & Vlahov, 2005).
Where do you live? What does your apartment or house look like? How do you feel about living there? Who are your friends? What is the quality of those friendships? What do you pass on your way to work? What is your office like? Based on Galea’s talk, all these questions are now coming into play when scientists and doctors talk about models of disease. He noted the differences even living on different floors of the same apartment building can have on one’s health—for instance, if you live on a higher floor, it probably means that you have more money than your lower floor neighbor, a better view, more access to sunshine and light, and with that additional money, better access to healthcare. However, he also noted that people who live on upper floors must suffer extra delays if they need ambulance or medical emergency services since it takes that much longer to reach tenants on upper floors than lower floors, no matter how much money they have.
Galea talked about studies that have been done—studies I am hoping to track down and read in more detail—detailing how even having cracks in the ceiling or water damage stains on one’s walls can lead to more depression than someone who lives in a space without these cracks or damages.
Statements like these make a great deal of intuitive sense. What’s more important is that scientists are catching up to existentialists in understanding that we exist in relationship not only to other people, but to our environments and our stuff. People who lost family members in Hurricane Sandy are of course wracked with grief at this time, but people who lost their homes, belongings, and memories, while still being physically “OK,” whatever that means, are also wracked with grief. The grief may be different, but the suffering is real. As one colleague said to me, our “stuff” is imbued with the echoes of our identity, our past, and our history. Our lives may be spared, but we may wonder, “What kind of life is this?” The uncertainty of the path ahead—for those who lost family and for those who lost homes—can be terrifying.
What gives me a hint of comfort and hope in all of this is that the medical profession is coming to realize, slowly, but surely, it seems, that we are all in this together, and that what happens to our bodies is not completely separate from what happens to our minds and in our environment. If more medical scientists and physicians start viewing health and disease as the complex interrelationship existentialists have always known it to be, perhaps real societal healing is in our future.
— Sarah Kass