Uncovering a Truth in a Tragedy

Once again, it’s been the best and worst of times for our country – and our little slice of it, in particular.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve hardly had time to blink. From one crime or disaster to another, it was hardly surprising that expatriates named and shamed us (and tried to hide a certain relief that they’d left).

The problem with people, though, is people. I have watched a nation being tarnished, lambasted and split along racial lines; its sunny, Mandela-painted reputation blotted. If I was a real-deal conspiracy theorist, this would look like an undercover smear campaign to me.

But here in Port Elizabeth and surrounds, I’ve also noticed an incredible force at work. Something biological, perhaps, rooted in nature; or possibly a sign that in the Eastern Cape, community is an action word, not just a concept.

When one of our own was murdered last month, we united against evil, crime, women abuse and every other despicable assault on the human right to live peacefully – and to be safe at home. I felt the event more keenly than some, because I share a past with many of the people connected to the tragedy.

Elsewhere in our communities, other women shared the same fate, or will soon. What happened to Jayde Panayiotou should not happen to anybody. Regardless of the circumstances, suspects and facts (or rumours) surrounding a tragedy like this, this is what we banded together for and said: we will not have this happening in our neighbourhood, or yours; and we will not stand for it.

In times of crisis, people become their true selves. Perhaps, says Maia Szalvitz, a TIME magazine neuroscience journalist, it is because we are wired this way.

“Our brains are designed so that our stress systems can be soothed by social support: in response to the calming words or gentle touch of loved ones, for example, the bonding hormone oxytocin tends to lower levels of stress hormones. We learn this from infancy from our parents or caregivers; as we grow, our stress systems remain intricately linked to the presence of others who can provide comfort and relief from anxiety.”

Szalvitz says that many studies now show that strong social support extends life and improves health. During disasters, our “social networks largely determine our fates: the more connections we have and the stronger our bonds are to each other, the more likely we are to survive, not just physically but emotionally. To prevent and treat post-traumatic stress disorder, these ties are the best medicine. It’s when we face the toughest times that our true nature reveals itself.”

On social media, at church, in marches and during conversations with friends, thousands of people tuned into this biological wiring by focusing on a beautiful and much-loved teacher who has become an icon for everything good in a world gone mad.

And this is what we should cling to, rather than getting caught up in the tabloid frenzy that comes from a real-life event being twisted into a ‘story’.

If we’re innately built to give comfort and support in a time of crisis, then that is what we should do.

Beth Cooper Howell

First published in Woman on Top in The Herald