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In Sync

In the middle of a recent jog with my running partner Mary, a man walked up to us from the adjoining green belt and started talking. I didn’t even hear what he was saying at first, but he was smiling, and he had a dog with him, and a kid or two in the background, so I wasn’t scared. We finally just stopped and asked him to repeat what he’d said.

“I don't know if you know it," he said, "but the two of you are running totally in sync—every step is at the same pace with the same foot.” We laughed and kept on running, but it’s true. We’ve been running together for 40 years, so we fall into that rhythm pretty easily. Since we’re also best friends, we use this time to catch up and talk about our lives and the world and the seasons, and whatever else comes up. But being in sync, even a little bit, makes it easier to talk—literally and figuratively. We don’t always agree about everything, but we know what works best to keep us on even ground.

Interestingly, it was less than a week later when I read a short article in The New York Times Sunday Magazine about this very subject. Natalie Sebanz, a cognitive science researcher featured in the article, had pairs of people walk together and watched what happened. Some were in sync, some matched steps, and some were not coordinated at all. The ones who moved in sync with each other got along better. Her findings were amazing, though not really surprising. Even people with biases against each other found common ground. “You tend to like people more and become more prosocial if you engage in synchronous behavior with them,” she said in the article. Some researchers took it beyond walking and included other rhythmic activities—drumming, dancing, and finger-tapping among them. The findings were the same. The article even suggests going for a silent walk with someone if you’re in an argument. The piece concludes by saying that they aren’t even sure why this works, but that “synchrony unifies humans." If we're in sync, according to this research, we like each other better and we're more cooperative together.

We’re all moving forward and we have each other, even in the smallest, most rhythmic ways.

This idea has stayed with me since I read it. It makes sense to me that this is a way of connecting without having to find verbal or emotional agreement first. Sometimes, if we feel strongly about something, concurring might take forever. But just walking or moving in a synchronous fashion can connect us in a very basic, almost primitive way. What I love about this is that it doesn’t lock us into anything, and it doesn’t make us change our opinions. It just asks us to move in similar ways. Sebanz even suggests not talking—not letting the words interfere with the connection. I suppose this is part of why we like dogs and cats so much—that sense of connecting with them on a level more basic and meaningful than words. It’s also why I think it helps sometimes to just sit together—to acknowledge that we’re both present and intentional in our desire to come together with another being.

The older I get, the more in awe I am of our ability to find commonalities with each other. Our lives are intense and challenging and stressful, and a huge part of that is trying to do all of it with the folks in our lives. The human connection is part of what makes it easier, but it also sometimes makes it harder. And yet, we know it’s what we need to do. So I’m thinking about this these days—and not just when I run with Mary. I’m thinking about how rudimentary we all are—how comforting it feels to have another person on our wavelength, or at least in sync with our timing. Even breathing at the same pace can slow down our brains enough to talk about something in a slightly easier way.

The pandemic has presented us with more challenges than most of us ever imagined facing, and it’s one of those rare times in which physically connecting isn’t an option. But I’m still holding the idea of synchronicity in my head and my heart—looking for ways we can be on the same plane at the same time. I am looking for the humanity in everyone these days—on Zoom calls and when I’m running on the canal path in the early mornings. One foot in front of the other. We’re all moving forward and we have each other, even in the smallest, most rhythmic ways.


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