by Sandra Meisel
This essay isn’t about blame, it most certainly isn’t! I like the title, though, thought it was catchy. And I wanted to catch your attention. Not to entertain, but I wanted you to join me on the following investigation: What if Covid-19 only highlights our longing and thirst for company and connection? What if the more underlying reasons for our ever-present disconnectedness and isolation are to be found within ourselves, in our beliefs, attitude and behaviour?
Covid-19 deprives us of physical connection and that’s a big sacrifice, so much for sure. And it is no big news that loneliness and social isolation can cause significant emotional pain, as well as great negative impact on the physical wellbeing. In her TED-talk, “The power of vulnerability”, Brené Brown talks about how connection gives us purpose and meaning in our life. She states that connection is what we are here for, that it lies in our neurobiological wiring to search for it. The internet is full with observations and studies conducted during the 2020 lockdown, which strongly support the previous findings. The amount of people experiencing loneliness on a regular basis has significantly increased in the course of the pandemic.
Covid-19, this global, albeit involuntary, experiment painfully confirms that isolation and a life with little physical contact does not suit us very well; that we are a social species after all!
In ancient times, being kicked out of your flock and banned from your community was a death sentence almost for sure. The community provided shelter, safety and food. Today, one might not lack basic physical necessities when living a life in solitude, but still suffer from loneliness and a lack of belonging. Our gregariousness is inherent to our human nature and at least in the early days of mankind it was certainly key to survival.
If we look at “connection” in a broader sense, we find that it presents itself in various forms and that physical, interpersonal contact – which Covid-19 makes us sacrifice – is just one of them:
We can connect to nature, to art, to a higher purpose, the Divine, visions and ideas, to our inner self etc. Covid-19 leaves us feeling isolated and disconnected, yes, but not only Covid-19 does that. If we look thoroughly it turns out that there are a number of behavioural habits, attitudes and believes all lying within ourselves that stand in the way for connection to happen. This is good news because it means that we can do something about it! These “connection suppressors” how we can call them, are what this essay is after and which we try to identify. Because if, as so many studies suggest, connection is nothing less but the purpose in life, we want to do our best and set the stage for it to unfold!
There’s no doubt that the governments demand great sacrifices from each one of us in this common fight against the virus. And it certainly is quite easy to get lost in frustration. But we can also try and rise to the challenge, take action and explore how we are standing in our own way for connection to happen!
Over the last months I have spent a lot of time self-investigating and pondering over these issues and I have found several pitfalls worth digging into a little deeper. Let’s see if or to what degree you can relate to them as well.
1. We are so much in a hurry, that we are missing out on life itself.
Our default mode is ticking things off the list. We are always onto the next thing. This is how we live, work, socialize, communicate, eat, exercise, sometimes even love and parent. We are scrolling down the news, flicking through playlists, posts and tweets. We are jumping from one chat window to the next, calling it communication. Constant rush and forward-momentum characterise big parts of our life. Our fear of missing out (FOMO) is what drives us. Paradoxically, what really makes us miss out, is that very fear itself! Connection always happens in the present moment but FOMO makes us loose contact with the present moment and thus overlook everything it has to offer.
We get such a kick out of looking forward to pleasures and rushing ahead to meet them that we can’t slow down enough to enjoy them when they come. We are therefore a civilisation that suffers from chronic disappointment – a formidable swarm of spoiled children smashing their toys.
Alan Watts (British American philosopher, 1915-1973)
Connection requires a mind that is able to pay attention, to watch and listen closely instead of being pulled away by every ever so little stimulus. We seem to have lost that ability to some degree, and at the same time we have lost the ability to connect.
The rapid reward-cycles of modern media have further accelerated this development. We have become terrible at enduring boredom. Already half a minute of a “pause” where nothing happens, is too much for our dopamine-craving brains to handle and makes us reach for the phone. This leaves little time for reflection, for random thoughts and creative aha-moments. We are a distraction-addicted, attention-deficit society. We have created a world that lacks depth. The quantity of fake news and dubious beliefs is only symptomatic because we allow no time to crosscheck and verify the correctness of the information at hand. A world like that makes us feel empty, anxious, dissatisfied and – have a guess! – disconnected. Our bodies are in the present moment – where else should they be? But our minds are…. – well, where are they?
2. We pretend to be someone we are not
In Buddhist teachings the activity of creating and cultivating an image of yourself is called “selfing”. Social media platforms are big allies in this activity. Selfing is driven by different motivations and expectations, depending on one’s personality. Some want to be seen and stand out, others content themselves with fitting in. Some seek acceptance, others want more and strive for acknowledgement, or admiration and become almost avatar-like creatures 1). We all engage in it to a varying degree, depending on the circumstances, the setting and the roles we play. Whatever the goal, selfing often comes at a price: The disconnection from ourselves as we pretend to be someone we are not. From that place we can only fail to connect to the people and the world around us. Brené Brown says that in order for true connection to happen we need to allow ourselves to be seen for who we are, deeply seen. The groomed and flawless image of an avatar is beautiful to look at, but artificial, unreal and shallow. Shallow also becomes our contact with the world.
3. Our bubble has turned into a fortress
We very much differ between whom we want to connect to and to whom we don’t. We look for connection and acknowledgement with like-minded people and aren’t very interested about the rest. I guess this is only natural and shouldn’t be a problem as long as the bubble we live in doesn’t become a fortress. This is what often happens, though. And this is when it becomes sort of paradox: when the very drive to connect stands in the way for connection to happen, promoting separation and societal divide instead. But who exactly are the “builders” of that fortress? Let’s have a look:
(i) Strong point of view: The stronger we identify ourselves with our values, tastes and lifestyle, our opinions, stories and background (i.e. the more we engage in selfing and live it), the higher the walls we build and the more exclusive we become. So in all our eagerness to connect with some, we distance ourselves from the rest.
Put this to the extreme, and the result is what we were to observe in the 2020 US election, i.e. the deep divide within the American society. The tone and message of the election campaign was “us versus them” and the goal seemed pretty obvious: to SEPARATE from the unlike-minded in order to INCREASE the connection of the like-minded. We witnessed how comradeship grows stronger the more aggressively one separates from the rest. Not only did connection and separation seem to go hand in hand, but what’s more, one appeared to catalyse the other.
The same defamation strategies are applied with the current Covid-19 crisis, which, according to C. Eisenstein offers „juicy material for conspiracy theories. (…) I wish a lot more people would embrace not knowing. I say that both to those who embrace the dominant narrative, as well as to those who hew to dissenting ones. What information might we be blocking out, in order to maintain the integrity of our viewpoints? Let’s be humble in our beliefs: it is a matter of life and death.“
Instead of seeing the value and creative potential of different perspective and views, we tend to avoid them and if we can’t we become offensive. Much of the public discourse is characterised by this very same pattern: open-hearted and respectful discussions with room for different opinions have become rare. Instead, we see people yelling and defaming one another, drawing clear lines between what is right or wrong and always knowing better. The algorithms on social media platforms further contribute to the polarisation and division of the world. Their only goal is to increase our screen time, therefore they specifically target our preferences, interests and views.
Our news feed perfectly reflects the bubble we live in: Show me your news feed and I tell you who you are!
But there is yet another and much simpler reason why we barricade ourselves in the fortress, the reason being….
(ii) …convenience: Our fortress is comfy and provides shelter. The rules are set – our viewpoints, opinions and beliefs, too. Differing opinions often make us feel uncomfortable, sometimes even provoked, they are seen as a threat to the peace and quiet of our bubble. It takes real effort to deal with them and, worst of all, we might feel forced to question our own; and often this in NOT what we are after.
We might call ourselves just happy with our fixed (or sometimes also lacking) viewpoints, opinions and beliefs, but what we yet again sacrifice with this attitude is: depth. We’ve already discussed how our lack of depths may result from our fear of missing out (FOMO). Not only, though. Convenience can also lie at its roots.
(iii) Our fear of standing alone: Some seek the company of the flock less out of convenience or conviction but out of fear: the fear of standing alone. For them it is not about being seen, but of NOT being seen. For them the flock is little more but a shelter, a hiding place. “If people get to see my true self, including my weaknesses and flaws, will I still be worthy of connection? Am I still good enough?”
The fear of losing connection typically involves some kind of shame. Shame can be the driving force to fit in and to hide the true self. And once again (here comes selfing-alert no. 2) do we disconnect from ourselves as we pretend to be someone we are not.
The habit of comparison is part of this dreadful game. We tend to spend quite a significant amount of time comparing ourselves to others 2) . As we do so, we create stories around why we are superior or inferior to the person next to us. Whatever the conclusion, there is nothing to gain from. Comparison undermines connection and reinforces separation.
We can clearly see how the longing for connection and the fear of losing it can stand right next to each other. In other words, as much as we long for connection might we also fear losing it. This leads to another paradox: we want connection, but our fear of losing it sets the stage for the exact opposite 3); not only do we disconnect from ourselves as mentioned above. Also, in our desperate quest for acceptance and acknowledgement from the flock might we watch other people being bullied or even actively join in. Under self-imposed peer pressure do we allow the divide growing bigger, plus we make others pay for our own weaknesses and fears. Instead of trying to unite and find common ground do we become followers 4).
MOVING TOWARDS CONNECTION
We’ve discussed in great detail where our disconnectedness, our sense of isolation, estrangement and not-belonging might come from. The question that arises now is how to overcome the status quo – how to connect!?
As usual the initial steps are probably the most difficult; they might even appear somewhat overwhelming to begin with. Moving towards connection requires the willingness to review and reflect on our attitudes, our convictions, values and fears – in other words, the willingness to allow our world being turned upside down! All this being exactly what it takes to open into vulnerability. But why would we want to do that?
Love with our whole hearts, even though there's no guarantee! (…) Practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, being able to say, "I'm just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I'm alive."
In her TED talk, Brené Brown explains that true connection requires that we open up. She shows how connection comes as a result of authenticity, the willingness to let go of who we think we should be in order to be who we are. For that we also have to understand our selfing activities, the how, why and where we engage into them. All this can be summarised as….
…opening into vulnerability!
The thing is, we don’t like feeling vulnerable and we tend to numb it together with other challenging emotions. But apparently, you can’t selectively numb emotions. So each time we resort to our trusted distraction strategy (a couple of beers, binge-watching Netflix etc.) in order to numb boredom, frustration, shame, anxiety or pain, we do also numb all positive emotions and potential, such as the possibility for connection.
Our aversion against vulnerability might originate from one common misconception:
We confuse vulnerability with weakness. The truth is, opening into vulnerability requires quite an amount of courage, strength and trust. After all, we decide to finally stand by our inadequacies, weaknesses and flaws. The courage, strength and trust this takes come from the understanding that vulnerability is unavoidable if we want true connection to happen. Motivational to know, that we can expect far more than connection in return for our investment. Opening into vulnerability opens a door behind which awaits tremendous empowerment, healing potential and freedom. And there is more: We trade our fragile self-esteem for something very precious, and that is compassion.
Compassion is THE all-round “weapon” against all sorts of self-limiting emotions such as resentment, false pride, anxiety, shame, lack of worthiness etc. It helps us find equanimity and loving acceptance where there otherwise was rejection, aversion, remorse or denial. It certainly is one of the most powerful companions and mentors to have on one’s side when it comes to all big life topics and themes such as parenting, pregnancy and child birth, aging, career decisions, job loss, separation and divorce, death etc. (feel free to complete the list to your liking).
With compassion we also see more clearly that others face struggles similar to ours. And instead of comparing ourselves with others and looking for differences, we get more and more interested in seeing what we have in common, what unites us. We begin to understand that most of us share the same longing for connection, but also the same misconceptions of how to achieve it.
So in the same way that we found compassion and a sense of good will for ourselves, we find empathy for others. Our actions, speech and thoughts reflect that. We let go of our judgemental attitude and presumptuous behaviour. All this becomes apparent in our appearance and makes people feel safe in our presence. Before, we have been barricading ourselves in a fortress for a variety of reasons. But now, through kindness and heartfelt bravery we create a space around us where others feel safe and welcome to be who they are. Where different opinions and viewpoints – even those we disagree with – aren’t considered a threat anymore, but welcome 5). In this space, true connection can flourish.
Just a few additional words addressing the sceptic, who might argue: Why would we want to cultivate compassion, if that only me