The social relationships between and among bodies is as real as the bodies themselves.
The nature and quality of those relationships have a direct effect on our somatic state.
We surely know this intuitively. We avoid people who make us feel bad and are attracted to those who make us feel good. In this sense, our emotional connections penetrate beneath the skin and become part of us.
Recognition of this basic reality is hindered because while we can see and touch and smell bodies, we can’t do the same with social relationships. They are non-empirical. But many non-empirical things are nonetheless real. Kinship relations, gravitational and magnetic fields come to mind. Perhaps it’s time to think in terms of ’emotional fields’.
The reality of the corporeal effects of social relations hits us usually when we lose an important emotional connection. A ‘loss’ of some kind: a job, partner, parent, (heaven forbid) a child, a community. The list has much potential. ‘When you think you’ve lost everything, you find you can lose a little more’ (Bob Dylan, ‘Trying to Get to Heaven’). Whatever you lose, make sure it’s not your sense of humour.
Your legs may go. Perhaps your insides turn to mush. A sense of dread or foreboding seems to permeate every cell in your body. Your body knows, even if your mind does not, that losing an important social and emotional connection has consequences. It can do you a lot of harm. In extreme cases, it can kill you. And the causes of this harm will leave no bruise. No wonder some tribal societies regard it as the effect of magic or sorcery.
So we have to take these invisible emotional connections among people seriously. And learn to manage them with skill.
Some of this is part of being a social mammal. Other primates, dogs and horses could move us to tears with their woes. But much of it is socially created. Millions of people, especially the young, in Europe, North America and much of the Arab world are bearing the emotional and somatic costs of ‘austerity’. But this cost will not be measured.
Some of the best laboratories of the connection between emotional loss and somatic suffering are, of course, prisons or, to use their Christian name, penitentiaries. Consider, then, this summary of research into the effects of incarceration and life expectancy: Prison time cuts lifespan until parole ends
Most of us will manage to keep (at least) one step ahead of the law, but we’re all likely to be effected by the same causal processes as those at work in prisons.