Our Emotional Footprint

By Saul Levine, MD

It is clear that the world has become concerned about our “carbon footprint,” and we are taking more seriously the potential consequences of global warming. Human beings have shown themselves to be remarkably resourceful and creative in overcoming challenges, and there is some optimism that our ingenuity and dedication will ultimately reduce our carbon footprint.

I am less sanguine, however, that we will be as successful in meeting another threat, one that equally endangers our existence – our “emotional footprint”. Our emotional footprint is what we contribute, psychologically and socially, to each other and to our communities. It is how we behave towards, and affect, each other.

As with our carbon footprint, our emotional footprint can be positive, created with care and benevolence, or it can be negative, influenced by our selfishness, abuse, and nastiness.

I sometimes think that we are living in an “Age of Incivility”. We have seen many politicians and celebrities who have been intemperate and nasty in public. You have surely noticed that many people are rude even in their day-to-day dealings with each other, at home, at work, and in stores. Some seem to feel it is their “right” to be pushy and antagonistic, often expressing themselves loudly and aggressively, emulating the media pundits who fill our airwaves and screens with angry, degrading comments. The truth is, we can all be uncivil. We sometimes criticize and mock even our friends and family members.

All of this affects us, and worse, serves as a model of behavior to our children. This incivility also does real damage to the social “atmosphere” we live in. Having different opinions is as human as breathing, and in a civil democracy, differing views should be appreciated. But when they are delivered with invective and derision, we enter into an unpleasant atmosphere.

A virtual tsunami of diatribes and verbal assaults are delivered via television talk shows and cyber bullying. These raise the level of nastiness, escalating a decidedly negative emotional footprint. And they affect us all, engendering “bad moods”, abrasiveness, and even demoralization.

We have a crucial decision to make: We can either continue on a path of increasing antagonism and conflict, or concentrate on acting with more tolerance, respect and kindness. If we can be convinced that we must change, we could bring the same kind of international awareness and commitment to that task as we now bring to reducing global warming.

The Yiddish concept of “mentsh”, a respectful and decent person, comes close to this ideal of acting with respect, generosity of spirit, and tolerance. A positive emotional footprint is related to the Bantu concept of “Ubuntu”, which Bishop Desmond Tutu refers to as “the essence of being human”. This emphasizes that we are members of many different communities, but essentially of one common social network, the “Community of Humanity.”

A culture centered on everyday rudeness and intolerance, increases rancor among the people. But in a culture that stresses mutual respect and cooperation, the predominant mood is much more positive and generative, and antagonism diminishes.

We can decide in many small and large ways either to increase or decrease our carbon footprint. Similarly, we can choose daily rudeness and discord, or we can choose everyday actions of civility, respect, and cooperation – a positive emotional footprint. Which will we choose? And by the way, what is your emotional footprint?


One Response to “Our Emotional Footprint”

  1. Lois Gordon | 05.14.12 at 2:30 PM said…

    This article is interesting and spot on. My opinion is that there is such a feeling of entitlment for everyone that they never stop to think about the “other guy”. It is all about what is my share. Not a good commentary on people of today. Our politicians are greatly responsible for most of this. Along with Hollywood.