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Lisa Ling: What I learned about life

Editor’s note: Award-winning journalist Lisa Ling is the host and executive producer of CNN’s original series, “This is Life with Lisa Ling,” which airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT beginning Nov. 27. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more reviews on CNN.


It’s hard to describe what it’s like when less than an hour after meeting someone, a person discloses a deeply hidden trauma or secret.

The scene often goes like this: we sit opposite each other and our eyes meet. Our breathing slows down, deepens to an audible level and our limbs begin to throb. And then the tears start to flow.

At that time, a bond develops between the two of us, unlike the one I have even with my close friends or family members. But it is a human bond that is special and sometimes even sacred.

For nine seasons, these are the moments I have shared with people whose lives are now part of the documentary series “This Is Life”. They couldn’t be more different from each other, or from me, but they have in common that they are people I might never have had the opportunity to meet if not for our show.

I remember each of them so clearly: the mother who avoided coffee and alcohol all her life out of respect for the Word of Wisdom of her Mormon faith, but who, like so many others in her community, was became addicted to opioids prescribed by her doctor. her and so many others for the pain.

The former Colorado prosecutor who decided to undergo psychedelic therapy for a severe mental health crisis triggered by a home invasion.

The group of Chicago teenagers who told me they were all eight or nine when they first saw someone get shot in their neighborhood.

The 70-year-old couple I met at a swingers convention who told me how essential trust was in their relationship for them to be at such a lascivious event.

Graduates of a prison fatherhood program who witnessed a father-daughter dance inside the facility where they were incarcerated.

Over nearly a decade, we have integrated and immersed ourselves in communities large and small, in nearly all 50 states. In all of our shows, we have sought to better understand who people are and why they might act or think the way they do. And as diverse as our seasons are, the common thread that ties all of our stories together is the uniqueness of the American experience.

But these days, I wonder: what does the uniqueness of the American experience even mean at a time when our nation is deeply divided and the very notion of who becomes an American is being questioned? We emerged from a global pandemic psychologically and emotionally bruised. We have endured blockages, demonstrations, insurgencies, skyrocketing inflation. Add to that the media and social media literally pushing people in opposite directions and the question of what it means to be an American has taken on a dark urgency.

Now more than ever, we are glued to devices and only follow those who espouse the same things as us. We find ourselves in increasingly difficult bubbles to penetrate.

In the drive to personalize our social media feeds, many of us have locked ourselves into ways of thinking that don’t tolerate dissent.

Most of the time, we don’t even think for ourselves anymore. When big tech collects data about our viewing and shopping habits and individually feeds us information that algorithms determine we might want to see or consume, it cuts us off from other ways of thinking and extraspection. And because our devices were designed to flood our brains with information, we’ve become desensitized to things that might normally make us feel. We are momentarily drawn into the clickbait, then we just move on to the next thing. And the cycle repeats itself.

The risk in all of this is that we don’t take the time to understand the context or think critically, because we’re too busy scrolling aimlessly with no time to think about what it all means. This cycle is a phenomenon that our show has examined in detail: people predisposed to feelings of paranoia who have been pushed to extremes by media that caters to their preferences or the information they seek.

What we’ve strived to do over the years is get to know people beyond the surface – or the headlines. What is life like for people who might be vulnerable to conspiracy theories and extreme media on a day-to-day basis? What are their fears based on? How can our own fears or concerns collide or intersect? I have never felt more strongly about the work we do, the questions we ask and the conversations we have on “This Is Life” than now, because it is, I have always believed, that the more we know about each other, the better off we become. This show gave viewers a window into the private lives of people you may have heard of or had an opinion on, but never really got around to getting to know. Now is the time to get to know the lives of our fellow Americans more intimately.

In our final season, we take a compelling look at the future of humanity itself, focusing, for example, on the long-term effects of isolation and mental health. As we spend more and more time on our devices and increasingly seek validation in the form of likes, from people (or bots) we may not even know, our face-to-face interactions are diminishing. Parents lament that their kids would rather use devices than play with other kids, engage in physical activity, or do just about anything else.

In one episode, we meet a teenager named Glenn who hasn’t had a meaningful face-to-face interaction with a human in years. Instead, he spends countless hours in his bedroom wearing an Oculus headset and traveling through virtual worlds and meeting people in the metaverse. This young man sought to avoid deep social anxiety and rejection, but in doing so he lost any meaningful in-person interaction. If more people like him start giving up on human relationships, we might start losing the ability to interact with each other. The potential for becoming desensitized to human experience and emotions, while existing in a virtual world, could be very real.

By doing this, a young man who professes to have intense social anxiety, Glenn can avoid having to deal with the rejection that has plagued him his entire young life. But when legions of people begin to live without meaningful human relationships, what does that mean for our species?

As Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk writes in the best-selling book “The Body Keeps Score,” “Being safe with others is probably the most important aspect of mental health; secure connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.

After an almost two-hour virtual reality session in Glenn’s room – I was the only person outside of his family who had ever been in his room – where we slew dragons and competed in a game of speed dating who sometimes tested Glenn’s anxiety, he told me his dearest wish.

“I would really like to have a girlfriend one day,” he said, “a real girlfriend.”

No matter how “real” virtual reality gets, once you take off the headset, you’re still on your own. And nothing compares to human contact, comfort, vulnerability and emotion. These are things we are meant to feel. The human connections I’ve made with everyone who’s been on our show over the years have changed me. The depth of the stories people shared with me, the vibration of their bodies as they cried, sometimes, in my arms. Watching the happy faces of those who have overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

It has been an honor and a privilege to share these human moments with so many over the years. I became a better person as a result. And it’s those kinds of interactions that we need most in America today. In these deeply divided times as we are pushed further into extremes, we must be proactive in stepping out of our bubbles and engaging. After all, THIS IS LIFE.

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