Collective effervescence

Collective effervescence is a sociological concept coined by Émile Durkheim. According to Durkheim, a community or society may at times come together and simultaneously communicate the same thought and participate in the same action. They become swept up into a world entirely different. He found that people within a group felt united in a more intense way when they came together for unique experiences, a “sensation of sacredness” that happens when we are a part of something bigger than us. Experiences like celebrating a 108-year wait for a World Series, marching with thousands of others in support of a mutual cause, or singing and dancing together to our favorite band live in concert.

During these experiences, our focus shifts from self to group. It is more than just people coming together to distract themselves from life by watching a game, volunteering, or attending an event. It is an opportunity to feel joy, social connection, meaning, and peace – and then share it! These experiences can occur even in simple such as watching TV together, in our family it is Jeopardy. Research suggests that people who experience these things are likely to be happier and feel less anxious and depressed.

A shining example is the sense of belonging we have during the Olympics. Suddenly we become friends with strangers at a bar as we cheer together. I still feel the goosebumps from 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics and the US Men’s Hockey team. There is a YouTube video of a truly magical moment from July 24, 2013, when Liverpool Football Club played a match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and 95,000 Australian fans swayed in unison singing the club’s anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” There are also examples in sadder times like the space shuttle Challenger explosion and 9/11.

The technical definition of effervescence is the escape of gas from an aqueous solution and the foaming or fizzing resulting from that release. I apologize for the technical explanation diversion, but for the record, I am a degreed Chemical Engineer. When talking about effervescence in this manner, we note it begins with a liquid. Life is in motion like water, a constant flow which generates oxygen and supports living beings. J.D. Salinger wrote, “The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” Happiness is stagnant, joy has a flow to it.

Shared encounters play an important role in our psyches. They create a feeling of unity and an uplift in positive energy that boosts the larger community. It doesn’t have to be a big event with thousands of strangers. I have had this feeling after talking with a seatmate on a two-hour flight. Zoom cannot do that. COVID has made an impact and altered the sharing of rituals and events that mark the passage of time and important life transitions. Weddings, funerals, and graduations give us a sense of meaning, they are sacred events, which makes forgoing them so hard. When people stop gathering to share emotional experiences, their sense of togetherness tends to dissipate.

This communal feeling, instilled by personal connections from family and neighbors, was being lost even before COVID. In my era of growing up, we were born into a community that was an extended family, a church, a neighborhood. Then through the course of growing up we pursued our individuality, built upon that collective foundation. I feel as if today that script has been flipped and people stake their individuality first and then seek out a community that aligns with their uniqueness. That community seeking can rely on social media posts and other invitations without real depth.

America is amid a spiritual crisis of disconnection. People today are losing that sense of shared humanity. The world seems distraught. We’ve sorted ourselves into factions based on our politics and ideology. We’ve turned away from one another and toward blame and rage. Collective effervescence has taken on a dark side. What was once a disagreeable aftertaste when our side lost, has now become a “polar-opposite” division in politics, race, even public health policies. Our communities strongly delineate within ‘tribes’ of “insiders” and “outsiders” or “us” and “them.” Supporters of each side protesting and reacting, often violently, to those they deem outsiders. This can lead to cruelty, attacks, and even bloodshed. This is what fueled the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Religious rituals and experiences have the power to generate strong feelings of identification with a group. These experiences can be the individual soul in commune with the divine, but there is a collective joy that is social and familial. The very definition of spirituality is the recognition that we’re all intimately connected to each other through love and compassion. In Ancient Hebrew, the word for “joy” is Simcha. In the Torah, Simcha is not an individual experience; it has a collective quality. It’s not something to be won, but something to be shared.

The Ancient Jewish people knew how to celebrate no matter what they were going through. Comedian Alan King once said that every Jewish holiday could be summed up as: “They tried to kill us. We survived! Let’s eat!” The rituals and traditions they observed, and still do today, gave strength, structure, and practice to their communal joy. The focus is not on the individual attaining or achieving something, but on collective sharing and cooperation. The giving of oneself to others.

In the book, Nehemiah (8:8-12), after restoring Jerusalem and the return of many exiles, Ezra read clearly from the book of the law of God. As the words washed over them, the people grieved with their weight, filling them with sorrow. Nehemiah told them now was not the time to lament, but to rejoice in God’s Holy Day and prepare a feast and share it with those who don’t have anything. The joy was in their shared experience: drinking and eating and celebrating; sharing with those who had nothing, everyone at the table, no-one missing out.

Collective effervescence alters the frame of mind and shifts the horizon for what is possible.  In Vatican II, the recognition of the Holy Spirit at work within the Council was experienced with an emotional intensity that overwhelmed them, and it transformed their sense of what was possible.  Consequently, Vatican II transformed the Catholic Church.

If we feel that the world is failing; that it has an absence of sharing joy and peace with everyone at the table, then it starts with our own failures in following Him; the lack of giving of ourselves to the community. It then becomes our responsibility to create that “sensation of sacredness” as part of something bigger than us. We as Christians, believe that true meaning, purpose, and community are to be found in Christ and our two commandments – Love God and Love others.

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