Are you contagious?
It's cold and flu season here in New England. It’s the time of the year when bottles of Purell are everywhere. People shake my wrist when greeting me after worship because they have a nasty cold. They tell me, “I’m still contagious.”
We know that illnesses like a cold or the flu are contagious. But what about emotional illnesses or "dis-eases"? They can spread just as easily as physical ones, and in some cases an emotional "dis-ease" can be just as hazardous and damaging. If a child grows up in a family, for example, where they witness their parents arguing and fighting all the time, it’s more likely that they will resolve conflict and disagreements that way when they grow up. If a child grows up in a home where there is alcohol and drugs abuse they are more likely to do the same in later life as well. These kinds of "dis-eases" are clearly contagious and can be passed on for generations.
Other emotional "dis-eases" might be less obvious, but they can be just as destructive. Imagine, for instance, a parent who comes home from work every day sour and grouchy because their job is tedious and the office politics drives them nuts. That kind of negativity can be caught by the whole household. Edwin Freidman, a Rabbi who wrote the classic book Generation to Generation, said that anxiety is the most contagious emotion in families, churches and synagogues. When families catch anger and impatience, the whole household will likely feel unhappy. People will either begin to criticize one another or withdraw into their bedrooms. It’s no different than a parent coming home from work sneezing and coughing around the whole house without covering their mouth. Soon everyone in the household has a cold and cough. Over time this kind of emotional "coughing on others" can erode family closeness and trust.
What can we do to prevent this “emotional dis-ease” from spreading? How about starting with being honest admitting that we can spread an emotional “dis-ease” as well as catch one. As we scan our own lives we might discover that we have been infected or that we are spreading unpleasantness to others. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus told his disciples, “But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:23). The antidote? The Apostle Paul in Philippians 4: 8 tells us to think about things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. Through prayer, talking with a close and trusted friend or a spiritual counselor, or reading a helpful book, we can get the treatment we need.
You can also be on the lookout for it in your family. If someone comes home grouchy, angry or critical, you might simply ask, “Are you contagious today?” Kindly, respectfully, and compassionately ask them what’s causing the negativity or unhappiness and request that they please cut out “coughing or sneezing” on everyone.
I think we all have experienced how negativity, sarcasm, cynicism and bad moods can infect a whole household or community--that's the bad news. The good news is that our positive moods--our joy, peace, humor, love and happiness are also contagious. We can as just as easily "infect" people around us with our positive energy as we can with our negative energy.
So, when someone asks you, "Are you and I contagious?" the answer is always, "Yes we are!" The next question to ponder then is whether we are contagious with--negativity or positivity--and what kind of emotional energy are we spreading to our loved ones, friends, and the wider community.