Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Love Thy Neighbor, Live Forever (excerpt from A REAL LIFE)

Love Thy Neighbor, Live Forever

“Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together.”
—Woodrow Wilson

You might think that neighborly togetherness and its casual daily exchanges are good for a once-a-year laugh and no more. Well, there is empirical proof that a supportive community goes way beyond being fodder for sitcoms.
For decades I have pondered the immeasurable value of friends. I have talked in various books about those childhood days in Vancouver, surrounded by good pals, and later by our neighbors, the Paoluccis, in Montepulciano, who literally adopted us and brought us up as good Tuscans, leaving out those few but precious nearly lifelong friends just thinking of whom makes me confident and secure. And all along I have tried to describe the importance of small and daily friendships, the sense of sanctuary you feel in a small community, where you are known and appreciated, where you feel sheltered, where you belong.
But all along I could describe only vague feelings of calm and happiness, and a sense of well-being those relationships can bring. You can imagine what a confirmation of these hazy hunches and intuitions it was to find a piece of medical and sociological research which actually quantified the health benefits and long life that a reassuring and nurturing community could provide.
A friend in New York who knew I was working on this book sent me an excerpt from the respected and bestselling writer Malcolm Gladwell and thought it would help. It was a chapter from his intriguing book Outliers. Not only did it help me in writing this, but it also convinced me that I hadn’t lost my mind.
Gladwell cites research done almost 50 years ago by Stewart Wolf, a physician who taught in the medical school at the University of Oklahoma but spent his summer months on a farm in Pennsylvania.
Near Wolf’s farm was the small Italian immigrant town of Roseto where, one day, he stumbled onto something his sociologist and co-researcher John Bruhn later called “magical.”
Roseto, Pennsylvania was named after Roseto, Italy a small medieval hill town in the rugged landscape of the southern region of Puglia, whose inhabitants eked out a living from a marble quarry and the terraced hillsides near the town. In 1882, in search of a better life, twelve of them sailed to America and found jobs in a slate quarry of eastern Pennsylvania. 
Following their success, Rosetans began to emigrate en mass. In 1894 alone, 1,200 of them applied for passports. On a rocky hillside of Pennsylvania, they began to build a town that very much resembled the one they had left behind; in the town square they built a church they named after the one in Puglia, on the narrow streets they built closely-packed, two-story houses with slate roofs, and, their main street they named after Italy’s national hero, Garibaldi.
In the last years of the century, an energetic young priest Don De Nisco gave a vibrant life to the new town. Gladwell writes, “De Nisco set up spiritual societies and organized festivals. He encouraged the townsfolk to clear the land, and plant onions, beans, potatoes, melons and fruit trees in the long backyards behind their houses. He gave out seeds and bulbs. The town came to life.”
When Wolf arrived more than fifty years later, he found a perfect social replica of an Italian town that his co-researcher Bruhn later described. "I remember going to Roseto for the first time, and you'd see three generational family meals, all the bakeries, the people walking up and down the street, sitting on their porches talking to each other… It was magical."
But the true magic lay in the health of the people of Roseto. The local doctor who had been practicing there for seventeen years told Wolf, “'I rarely find anyone from Roseto under the age of sixty-five with heart disease.”
This was back in the 1950s, long before broad knowledge of cholesterol when, “Heart attacks were an epidemic in the United States.” Wolf was skeptical but smitten. With the help of the local mayor who put not only the town’s council room at Wolf’s disposal but also the help of his four sisters, Wolf began to analyze physicians’ records reconstructing medical histories and family genealogies. He invited the whole town to be tested, blood samples, EKG’s, the works. They found the results astonishing. In Roseto, virtually no one under the age of fifty-five showed any signs of heart disease. For men over sixty-five, the death rate from heart disease was roughly half that of the US average. The death rate from all causes was about a third lower than it should have been. Bruhn recalls, “There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn't have anyone on welfare. Then we looked at peptic ulcers. They didn't have any of those either. These people were dying of old age. That's it.”
The question of course was “Why?”
The hunt was on.
The first suspect was diet. They thought that their Mediterranean cuisine brought over from Puglia, high in olive oil, seafood, vegetables and fruit, might have caused them to be healthier than their fellow Americans. But that wasn’t true: the Rosetans no longer cooked with olive oil but used lard instead, their pizzas were heavy and besieged by salami, sausage, ham and even eggs: over 40 percent of their calories came from fat. They also smoked heavily. So much for health habits.

They next tried genetics. They traced down relatives of Rosetans in other parts of America to see if their good health matched. No go: Rosetan good health did not go past the boundaries of the town.
Next, they wondered if it was the Pennsylvanian hills that made the difference. Two nearby, same-sized towns, Bangor and Nazareth, were populated by similarly hardworking European immigrants. They scoured the medical records: for men over 65, the death rates from heart disease were three times that of Roseto.
After years of research, Wolf and Bruhn, stumbled on the answer to what made Rosetans healthy: it was Roseto; their town.
Gladwell eloquently concludes: “They looked at how the Rosetans visited each other, stopping to chat with each other in Italian on the street, or cooking for each other in their backyards. They learned about the extended family clans that underlay the town's social structure. They saw how many homes had three generations living under one roof, and how much respect grandparents commanded. They went to Mass at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church and saw the unifying and calming effect of the church. They counted twenty-two separate civic organizations in a town of just under 2,000 people. They picked up on the particular egalitarian ethos of the town, that discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.
“In transplanting the paesani culture of southern Italy to the hills of eastern Pennsylvania the Rosetans had created a powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world. The Rosetans were healthy because of where they were from, because of the world they had created for themselves in their tiny little town in the hills.”
So whatever you do, and however you do it, you should make a concentrated effort to forever love thy neighbor, and not because the Bible tells you so, but because it can lead to a longer and much healthier life.

          Perhaps Epicurus, the Athenian philosopher who died in 270 BC, was right when he wrote, “It’s not so much our friend’s help that helps us, as the confident knowledge that he will help us."

* * * 

A REAL LIFE: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness is available through W. W. Norton and or wherever books and ebooks are sold. For more about the author, 

please visit

Stay tuned for a new chapter post next week!

No comments:

Post a Comment