Triptych of Disconnection III
This is the third in the series of blogs about disconnection and it explores disconnection from each other - something that was magnified with the Covid Pandemic and that we all painfully felt. In some way the pandemic highlighted how vital human connection is to our existence. The psychologist Harriet Lerner states that, "only through our connectedness to others can we really know and enhance the self. And only through working on the self can we begin to enhance our connectedness to others." This highlights what I have said in the previous two blogs - the threads of connection, to land, selves and each other are interwoven and cannot exist without each other, but let us focus on human connection here.
Please note that I have covered some of these ideas in my blog, 'Can A Leopard Change its Spots?' here I want to take it further and explore more deeply the concept of 'other.'
In his book Sapiens, writer Yuval Noah Harari talks about the role of story/myth in connecting humans. He states that once the threshold of 150 people is reached they can no longer rely on intimate acquaintance or rumour-mongering to give them a cohesive connection. He goes on to say, "Any large-scale human cooperation - whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or archaic tribe - is rooted in common myths that exist only in people's collective imagination." This ability to create an imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate but under the right circumstances these myths can change drastically - he gives the example of the French Revolution in 1789 when people stopped believing in the divine right of kings, to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people. It is the main thing that makes us different from other primates - the creation of myth and story to create behaviour and belonging, Of course, if these myths can bring us closer together they can also be used to separate us from each other and to create the concept or the story of the 'Other.'
So what do I mean by 'Other?' - It is anybody who is not seen as being included in the main identity of a group. So, in this way it changes depending on which main group has power in any country, culture, community or situation. The main power group will warn its members about the 'Others;' create stories about them, warn that they may 'pollute' the group or take away the resources/wealth/purity of the group. Stating it like this makes it sound very obvious and apparent but the most sinister thing about the 'othering' of people is the subtlety of the process. We are hardly aware it happening and yet we can suddenly find ourselves not trusting a wide array of people such as, Muslims/ Jews/ Catholics/ Pakistanis/ Bengalis/ Romanian / teenagers/ people from a certain postcode/people from a certain area/ houseless people/sex workers/ academics/ doctors/ scientists/ gun owners......... the list can go on and on and on. The reason we can do this is because we are often given a single narrative of these 'Others.' There is no complexity in the stories offered about them, it is a basic binary of 'we are good they are bad,' or 'we are right they are wrong.' In her TEDx speech, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks eloquently on this and what twisted perspectives and fears it can create. As a child I was offered very singular narratives about a whole range of people, from people with disabilities (they were dumb and could never be clever) to people of colour, (my mother telling me it was ok to date a black guy as they were good in bed, but not to marry one as it would bring shame on the family.) Writing this truth makes me physically uncomfortable, I can actually feel a lump in my chest and up into my throat with how wrong those words are, yet there was a time that I did not even question them, as they were given as a truth. For me, this is where the real work of overcoming the stories of separation about all those 'Others' actually starts - leaning into that pain and discomfort in order to pull apart the beliefs and find out what lies behind them - as well as the knowledge that I do not have to give up on my beliefs if I find them to be a truth, a real truth to me. My husband is a Catholic, he has a strong belief and faith - I do not. However I totally support and defend his right to have that belief and to practise it. In his book, The Way Out, How to Overcome Toxic Polarisation - writer Peter T. Coleman states that our connection to each other is not dependant on agreeing with each others beliefs but on respecting each others rights to have those beliefs.
If we want to truly connect with each other in a deep and meaningful way, in a way that nourishes us and helps us grow and develop, we are beholden to step outside the comfort of our 'Group of Belonging' who will share the same beliefs as us. We cannot grow and develop within an environment that merely agrees with our views and gives us affirmation of constantly being right - this is not growth, this is not development, this is stagnation. A body of water cannot thrive if it does not have fresh water entering, it is the same with our development - we need to be challenged, we need to change. There is no growth without challenge and no challenge without change. This is why I now read books that make me profoundly uncomfortable, it is why I try and think of the stories and beliefs that lie behind the actions of people rather than purely focussing on the actions themselves. It is also why I am more aware of the labels given to people in newspaper articles and history books - pioneers/occupiers, victims/gang member. All of these words either serve to connect us to and make us curious about each other or to distance us from those whose stories we really do not know and return to our 'Group of Belonging' feeling validated in our beliefs. I recognise that 'Groups of Belonging' are not always negative and absolutely we need them, but not at the cost of demeaning others or believing we are ultimately superior/better/more worthy of life than them. Within our digital age these 'Groups of Belonging' are further strengthened through algorithms that serve up more and more of the links that support our beliefs and prejudices so we easily become deeper and deeper entrenched in them. One only has to look at how the Nazi's used language and story to vilify and segregate the Jewish people to realise the power that is wielded through words and modern myths as well as the apparent simplicity of it and that was before the World Wide Web - a uncomfortable thought indeed.
So, apart from leaning into the pain and discomfort of deconstructing our beliefs and becoming aware of all of those deep chasms of prejudice and assumptions that inhabit us - what else can we do to become more nuanced and open in our relation to others. I would offer you the answer - turn back towards the great myths. I truly believe that our answer lies not in the creation of new stories but in our re-awakening of the old myths. I was recently captivated and challenged by a Theatre of War- (I cannot recommend this organisation highly enough) performance of The Suppliants, a Greek myth. It was read by a group of people in Ukraine and well known actors and centred on the theme of what it is to be a refugee. It was stunning and contained every emotional truth of the experience from many diverse perspectives - it told everybody's story. This is what the great myths do - whether it is the Sumerian story of Inanna or the Greek myth of Demeter or the great Irish myths of Finn and the Fianna - they show at their core what it is to be human. The flawed hero, the goddess who represents both life and death - they show us all aspects of the human condition and give us the space to explore it and ourselves within it.
So here is what I offer you in terms of connection -
Go and be painfully uncomfortable in the joy of discovering your prejudice and negative assumptions.
Be curious about people's stories.
Step out of your Group of Belonging towards those you think of as 'other' - listen to their stories and listen to your body as you listen - what is your discomfort telling you?
Read some great myths or better still book to watch a Theatre of War production.
Read any of these books:
Braiding Sweetgrass - Robin Wall Kimmerer
Unbound - Tarana Burke
Somebody's Daughter - Ashley C Ford
How to be an Antiracist - Ibram X Kendi
My Grandmother's Hands - Resmaa Menakem
The Way Out - Peter T. Coleman
I hope this helps you connect to yourself and in connecting to yourself more able to connect to others.