Collective Effervescence: The History of Gathering (Part 2 of 6)

March 2, 2021

Collective Effervescence: The History of Gathering (Part 2 of 6)

May 29, 2023

History and anthropology reveal the human desire for gathering, expressed throughout the ages in ecstatic celebrations of worshipping, conversing, feasting, consuming, and dancing. It is intriguing how many well-known secular festivals were birthed from their sacred roots of “danced religion” with Carnival being the best known.

Scholars ranging from Victor Turner to Margaret Mead have articulated the value and historical relevance of communing and shown that ritual and revelry don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Studying the phenomenon of religious pilgrimages more than a century ago, sociologist Emile Durkheim coined the term “collective effervescence” to describe the remarkable that cannot be experienced alone.

It can only be achieved by being physically present within a group and surrendering to its greater energy, ethos, actions. You suddenly find yourself being lifted and carried by a wave greater than you. In that moment, your feet leave the ground, gravity unmores, and you are transformed, twirling and hurling, into a new way of being, a new possibility. You surrender your "self" and your life becomes an atom in the great rippling lifeforce of humanity.

MEAningful Connections

I’ve experienced that collective effervescence here in Baja with the fifty cohorts that have gone through our MEA workshops. It’s almost like one’s sense of ego separation dissolves and what emerges is a communal joy. It used to be that people were born as part of a community, and had to find their place as individuals. Now people are born as individuals, and have to find their community.

J.D. Salinger wrote, “Happiness is a solid, and joy is a liquid.” It’s this liquidy bubbly-ness, like a champagne bottle magically popping open inside of you, that embodies this joyful experience. Often, it’s the feeling our compadres have over the course of their week at the Modern Elder Academy, with the crescendo arriving on graduation night. It’s proven to me that collective effervescence is good for your soul as it helps you feel more connected.

We Need an Advocate for Gathering

The flip side of our heroic rugged individualism, that has been represented as one of the great achievements of the modern era, is radical isolation, and, with it, depression and sometimes death. If ever there was a time for us to shed our sense of individuality and embrace this involuntary global transition in a collective way, this is it.

My favorite book tracing the history of communal joy comes from Barbara Ehrenreich, “Dancing in the Streets.” She chronicles that - with the backdrop of wars, plagues, and politics - ritual and revelry have revived against all odds across history. But, she worries,

“There is no powerful faction in our divided world committed to upholding the glories of the feast and dance.” She continues later in the book, “Many millions of people around the world are engaged in movements for economic justice, peace, equality, and environmental reclamation, and these movements are often incubators for the solidarity and celebration so missing in our usual state of passive acquiescence. Yet there appears to be no constituency today for collective joy itself. In fact, the very term ‘collective joy’ is largely unfamiliar and exotic.”



Could Gathering be a Fundamental Human Need?

While worshipping is considered to be a very personal experience and could be done in the confines of one’s home, dozens of churches, synagogues, and mosques are receiving municipal fines for opening their doors to services during our times of quarantine. As the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington D.C. said, “Praying apart is not the same thing as praying together.” They know what their congregants desperately need.

I get it. I used to yearn for the Sunday morning celebrations at Glide Memorial Church with the pulsing gospel choir and embracing sense of community in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. It sustained me during my most difficult weeks. If I missed a Sunday, I could always watch and listen to it on tape, but it definitely wasn’t the same. I didn’t feel the same divine intoxication.

Our brains are wired to connect and it may be a need as fundamental as food or shelter, but much more abstract. The contagious nature of our emotions mean that we seek social connection through gathering especially in our most distressing times. That’s what makes the current pandemic even more toxic: to starve the spirit just when it’s most ravenous for the need to gather.

During the pandemic, the number of adults exhibiting symptoms of depression has tripled, alcohol abuse has risen substantially, and suicides have spiked. We are prisoners of our homes, our minds, and our need for social contact. Yet, the history of societal rebounds after troubling times is encouraging. So there is hope!

The capacity for collective effervescence is encoded in us. When we’re denied it, we are at risk of succumbing to a potential solitary nightmare. It is time to reclaim what makes us human and feel connected. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll focus on the science behind this human need.

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