This is more of a personal post than most that I write but I’m including it here rather than in the offline journal where I write more self-focused reflections. This is because I thought that it might contain some useful ideas for other people too – either about the topic of connection or about reflecting on our values and what we have to offer. However it is very much a work in progress and I hope that any readers will take it as such.
Yesterday I attended a retreat day run by my friend and great writer-activist-teacher-academic Jamie Heckert. It felt good to take some time out for yoga, meditation and relaxation with a bunch of other people who work in similar areas.
In true Jamie style at one point in the day he invited us to ponder the question ‘if you were a cell in the cosmic body, what would your role or function be?’ The word that quickly occurred to me was ‘connection’. To put it in bodily terms I guess the metaphor would be the kind of cell that connects other cells together, and hopefully in a way that is beneficial to them and to the wider system.
Reflecting on it today I came up with several ways in which this connection theme is important to me. They might resonate with other people too, or it might be more that this process – on reflecting on the roles that we can fulfil – is a helpful one for other people to ponder.
I’m reminded of ideas in existential psychotherapy that we might regard a ‘good life’ as one in which we recognise our particular capabilities and find ways to fit them to the word around us. Unlike some existential philosophers I don’t believe that we are given a particular meaning or purpose to our life in some mystical way, but I do believe that we develop certain meanings and values for ourselves in conversation with the world and people around us. And it can be useful to reflect on how much the ways in which we live our lives are aligned with those meanings and values.
Of course such alignment is something that is far more possible for some people than for others, and I am extremely fortunate that I’m able to align my life with my values in both my paid work and my personal life. This is a point that I’ll return to towards the end.
Anyway, back to connection. These were my thoughts:
- On a basic level, when I think about the times that I feel most happy and contented, they involve connections between people. I love the feeling when I meet somebody new and find a connection with them, and the conversation begins to flow from there. And I enjoy that sense of connection that I have with people who I’m already close to where it feels like we quickly drop back into an ongoing conversation.Beyond that I get a real kick out of being a point of connection between other people. If I can put people who don’t know each other together in a way that is helpful to them I feel great. A nice example recently was when photoworks asked me to do a blog post around a photograph, which led to a collaboration between me, a photographer friend, and the people who came to model for us, which we – and photoworks – all seemed to benefit from in various ways.This is perhaps why I enjoy so much putting together edited collections on a topic, being the programme organiser for conferences and other events, and developing various collaborative projects with people who are interested in similar issues. It is also why social networking has been such a positive force for me. I love sharing something that one friend has noticed with other people who I know will be interested and hosting a discussion about it. I like to feel connected and I enjoy the role of being a point of contact between other people.
- When I consider where my particular skills lie I think it is in another kind of connection, and that is connecting people with ideas. I work in the academic world but I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly strong at writing academic papers or doing academic research (compared with my colleagues who are so good at developing theories and conducting studies). What I would say that I am good at is translating and synthesising academic – and other – ideas in ways that enable people to connect to them who might not otherwise be able do so. That’s why I enjoy teaching, training and writing textbooks. It is also a big part of what I do in the therapy room: helping clients to access ideas and practices that might be useful in their lives. Finally it is what I love doing most when I write books, blogs or comics for a general audience (i.e. anybody who connects with it).Publishing Rewriting the Rules and sharing those ideas via talks and video clips has been an amazing experience for me because I’ve felt so fulfilled in this mode of connection. It also feels important to keep remembering that this (translation, synthesising, making accessible) is my skill so that I don’t try to evaluate myself in relation to other things instead. Now that I recognise this, for example, I can take a specifically public engagement or networking role in the research projects that I’m involved with, or draw on those particular strengths when writing with colleagues. I try – although it isn’t always easy – not to evaluate myself against other things which I’m not so good at (like complexity of argument, publication in high theory/research journals, ability to be witty, or having extensive knowledge).
- So I’ve recognised that connecting people with each other and with potentially useful ideas and practices is particularly joyful for me. In recent years making shifts in my life towards these two aims has always been a good thing, so the idea of connection is a helpful touchstone when making decisions.But that theme of connection resonates with me on a further level as well. That is that connection itself has a major role in the kinds of topics that I’m interested in, such as relationship conflict, mental health struggles, and wider oppression/marginalisation (particularly in relation to gender and sexuality). To me it seems that experiencing and demonstrating people’s interconnectedness is often part of the solutions, whilst detachment and separation are part of the problems.So, for example, I’ve written about how I see turning inwards towards ourselves as a key element in both relationship conflict and depression. There is a similar pattern in both of withdrawing into ourselves, detaching from others who seem threatening, and building up our defences against a perceived risk of exposure. An alternative is to tune into ourselves, to recognise the vulnerabilities that are in play, and to use this awareness to connect to other people in their vulnerability as well. For example, in conflict situations, it can help to cultivate compassion for the reasons why the other person might be lashing out or withdrawing. When depressed it can be helpful to recognise how other people are also judging and comparing themsel
ves negatively against the visions of ‘success’ that they see in other people.
Connection, for me, is not about claiming that everyone is really the same in some way, but rather it is about assuming that everyone is sensible and explicable and endeavouring to find out how things are for them (which is inevitably different from how things are for us). As writers like Buber and de Beauvoir have explored, it is about recognising our tendency to see people only as they are for us (objectifying them through our own personal lens and goals) and trying –instead – to be open and present to the whole of who they are (whether they are our loved ones, or strangers, or people we find difficult).
When it comes to issues of oppression Julia Serano’s most recent book has been helpful for me in highlighting how noticing one form of marginalisation should draw us into recognition of all of them and how they operate together. There’s been such a tendency for different groups of people to argue that one form of oppression is more important than others, even using one experience of marginalisation to dismiss others, or pulling up the drawbridge once they have been granted equal rights rather than continuing to battle for those who still don’t have them.
An alternative approach is to take the marginalisation you experience yourself as the starting point to connect with others with both similar and different marginalisations, recognising that in order to address one we need to address them all as part of the wider tendency to divide people and to treat some as more valuable than others.
Part of this is recognising that the ways in which our lives are good (for example my ability to go on Jamie’s retreat and to do the connect-y things that I do) are often grounded on ways in which other people’s lives are not so good. I am intrinsically connected with all the other people in the world and the inequalities which make my life so easy often make other people’s lives harder. A good example of this is the view of disability as not so much something that individuals have but rather something that society does by making things easier for certain bodies than for others. Another example would be the amount that I am paid in an organisation being possible only by other people being paid less than me for work that is equally important. Perhaps the pleasure that one person has on knowing that they look attractive is currently only possible because other ways of appearing are regarded as unattractive.It is tempting to fall into a more individualistic way of thinking as a way of avoiding such painful facts. For example we might find ourselves defensively arguing that we got to where we are because we worked so hard and that other people just need to do the same. Or we might take on the common self-help message that it is positive thinking which gets people into the top 1% rather than, for example, inherited money and the centuries of race, class and gender oppression that this is often rooted in.
We discussed such matters on Jamie’s retreat and several people suggested that the implications are not to avoid doing the things that are good for us (like the retreat) or which we do well (like my writing hopefully) because they are not available to everyone. Rather we can perhaps use the strength, power and opportunities that we gain from such things to focus on addressing inequalities, raising awareness of oppression and marginalisation, and attempting to make such opportunities more widely available in whatever ways we can. Of course the best ways of doing those things, and the things that we need to be prepared to give up in order to do them, require a good deal of further reflection.
One way that I hope I work towards such aims is through demonstrating connection in my writing. A major theme of Rewriting the Rules is that fixed rules of how to manage relationships often limit everyone: not just those who fall outside them (who may be excluded, stigmatised and marginalised) but also those who fall inside them (who may become trapped and constrained by them, terrified of straying outside them, and hurting themselves with the scripts that they follow in an attempt to remain ‘normal’). I try to write in ways that are aimed fairly broadly rather than writing specifically for either an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ group. I hope that seeing how some of these things are bad for everybody will make it more likely for them to shift. Again that’s not about saying that everyone is the same or that everyone’s suffering is equal, but more about pointing out that we are connected by the operation of problematic social structures, scripts, and rules.
When writing this blog post I looked up the phrase ‘only connect’ to find out what the author E. M. Forster meant by it. I found this essay by Adam Kirsch which explains that ‘only connect’ ‘seems to capture the leading idea of all of Forster’s work—the moral importance of connection between individuals, across the barriers of race, class, and nation’. However, when he uses the phrase in the book Howards End, Forster ‘is not actually talking about this kind of social connection, but about something more elusive and private—the difficulty of connecting our ordinary, conventional personalities with our transgressive erotic desires’. I like this potential fourth meaning of connection in relation to my own work, given that so much of what I have studied has been about what are socially perceived as ‘transgressive erotic desires’ (transgressing conventional understandings of gender, sexuality, sex and relationships). I like the idea that perhaps there could be some link between connecting ourselves with such desires, and connecting ourselves with each other. Certainly I often argue that there is a lot to learn from those who are open about ‘transgressive erotic desires’ that may be useful for everybody. You might like to read what Jamie Heckert wrote about queerness and connection here.
On the basis of my reflections here it seems like there are some useful questions we might keep returning to:
- When and where to I feel most happy/content/fulfilled?
- What do I think my main skills and capabilities are?
- What are the things that are most valuable or meaningful in life for me?
- For all of those things how much are different aspects of my life aligned with them (e.g. work, friends, politics, where and how I live, etc.)
And maybe also:
- Which aspects of my life open up connections with others and which close them down?
- Which interconnections do I find it easy to recognise and which do I struggle with?
- Which wider inequalities do I suffer from? Which do I benefit from?
- What can I do, individually and socially, to expand the capacity to connect with others and to increase others’ opportunities?