Searching For Connection In An Individualistic World
The last two years of my life have been a mental, spiritual and emotional rollercoaster. I arrived back in the UK from travels to find my Dad diagnosed with terminal cancer, and spent the subsequent 6 weeks in a relay exchange with my brother, taking it in turns to look after my Dad in hospital through the night.
Finding myself in this pendulum of realities, spending one day looking after the father, the protector, the husband, the victim, the child; and the other day existing on the fringes, connected to humanity only through some sort of blinding confusion, I turned to all that I knew to grasp some semblance of understanding to help navigate the seas I found myself in; books.
I read Ryan Holiday and tried to absolve my ego whilst telling myself that this obstacle was my reality and it was up to me to conquer it. I read Kahlil Gibran and tried to soothe myself with his words of love and connectedness and being a vessel for greater good. I read Paulo Coelho to try and relate to the narrative of the hero’s journey to find the strength to make the best of the situation and to be a stand for my grieving, emotional, scared, upset family. And then I would look at the old man, all rubbery and swollen from the disease lacerating and overtaking his body and mind, barely audible, barely conscious, spewing bile and fears and uncertainty and upset; and I came crashing back to the cold reality of the hospital ward, of a hundred years of hope and death, of bleach cleaned floors and luke warm tea.
And I remember vividly the moment the surgeons came in to tell us that they managed to get him open and poke around a bit, and some other intellectual soundbites; and I remember not paying attention because I already knew it was bad news as there were four of them, each a pillar for the other when delivering their fatal blow. I remember piercing screams and tears and I remember the inner child tear itself from my mother, overpowering her, broken and wallowing in upset and confusion about the unfairness of the world, in disbelief, in anguish, in pain. I remember prolonging life for family members to pay their respects. I remember doctor’s not being on shift to pull the plug. I remember meek unwarranted hope brought on solely by the duration of time. I remember oncology specialists parading their power carelessly, tossing out statements of survival like a King tosses bread to the poor, unknowing of the sentiments echoed from the surgery team. I remember more meetings and anger and finally a surgeon making it clear that this conjured false hope from more ignorant parties was exactly that, false.
I remember death.
And like that I was pulled into action, leaning on the wisdom from pages I’d consumed throughout my twenties. The Stoic sage, robustified to emotions, a wonderful defense mechanism. My emotions can’t hurt me, because the thing I lost never belonged to me in the first place. Be a pillar of strength for everybody else. Understand that you are leasing life and you are not entitled to grieve when it is taken. Be strong remember. Step up. Make sure everybody is okay. Insulate others and isolate yourself.
And this continued. And in some respects it worked. In a sense I put parts of my life on hold in order to help guide my mother through the undoubted pain she was experiencing, the hollowness left from having 48 years butchered from her life. It worked whilst she broke her ankle and required constant care to stave off the black dog and his friends, while her state of mind became so twisted and knotted with pain and misery that she couldn’t see anything but damp futility. It worked in the sense that a year later, she has regained some modicum of an acceptable reality, green shoots of hope flowering social connections and work and laughter and fun, of a life beyond everything that was known before.
But at a humanistic, spiritual level, it all seemed like we’d been sold a bit short.
And so I did what we do in this modern world, I threw myself into me.
I looked at goals and courses and wrote gym plans and executed on them. I read blog posts and twitter about surrounding myself with the right people. I parsed articles about success and focus and perseverance and so forth. I drank up the cool aid of focusing on myself and ignoring everyone else. I got one percent better every day across a plethora of themes. Me and me and me and me again. I got so good at this that even my partner moved to the periphery of my mind. How can I make time for you when I have to be on me right now?
And that’s largely the mantra of this materialistic individualistic world we find ourselves in. The idea that everything is innate and lifeless and essentially material. The idea that we are individual and isolated and separate. The idea that the highest we can strive for is to lift more weight than the next guy in the gym or answer more eloquently than the next student or be the best AI-virtual-reality-data-scientist-marketing-space-monkey on the planet. The idea that the more money I make, the better I am, the more I consume, the more elevated sense of importance I have. The idea that the ultimate goal is to have power and superiority over you instead of sharing love with you.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not some new age hippy slandering all facets of a capitalist society or that ambition is bad and that we should all just play in endless fields of sunshine and roses. No no, without doubt, a material world has it’s uses. Science is the study of observable, measureable phenomena. It relies on the material. And as the management consultant and writer Peter Drucker said, “what gets measured gets managed.” And technology has allowed us to measure and manipulate and shape and build and has in a plethora of respects improved society for man.
And on a personal individual level, my island of knowledge expands with learning, with consuming words and experiences. My body gets stronger with lifting weights, staving off age and entropy and the currently inevitable decay and decline of my body and mind. These are all good practical things.
And for me, Stoicism, that practical philosophy, did work as a wonderful defense mechanism, it did robustify me to life when my Dad died. It did make me strong for my family.
But, for sure, over the last year, waking up stuck in my head, having conversations in my head, operating at the level of identity, living my reality like myself is limited to my discrete meat sack and that I’m not in any way connected to you has been, quite honestly, an impoverishing experience. And I look around and see the cultural and linguistic structures in place governing the human experience, about being the best you can be, striving for success, about getting what you deserve and fucking everyone else, and I can see the disconnect it creates. And perhaps in a world run by quick dopamine hits, by infinite scrolling and attention diverting and flickering and bickering and opinion spewing; in a place where we have to improve and grow and be the best we can be and so on; well perhaps it’s because we’re searching for something a little more. Perhaps because at the level of the spiritual, or whatever you want to call it, we feel empty.
I know I did when my dad died. I did all the right things and yet felt a huge disconnect with my family, with people, with life. And the resulting foray into my identity was frankly a manifestation of that disconnect, of a way to cover up the gaping void and the bodily yearning for something more, something intimate, something connected. And again in our discrete, material world, the linguistic structures in place limit our ability to go beyond the observable. It’s almost perjury in the west to talk in such tongues, in our corporate run consumerist world that only works if we gorge on more and more of the inanimate lifeless junk being fed to us. And yet with a little thinking we can surely understand that space is infinite, and that we only observe that which our blunt sense organs haphazardly receive as inputs, and that perhaps there can be something more, something beyond that which our conscious can understand. And I think it’s that striving for connectedness, or interconnectedness between all people and all things, is what perhaps a number of us are yearning for and replacing with cheap gadgets and gimmicks. I know I have been.
And this connectedness with the other has been written about for thousands of years in various scriptures and tongues. In a lot of eastern civilisations they still are. Yet today it is heresy to talk outside of the confines and safety of science and data and information and discreteness. Even though we feel it. Even though we strive for it. Even though connectedness gives us joy. Even though love and sharing and oneness temporarily gives us a higher sense of purpose and feeling of being part of something bigger than our identities and our stuff.
I did a course years ago that made practical this world view. It said that you are not your inward identity; your Self is that which you interact with and affect. And instantly that imagery transforms you from this isolated, inward, discrete life dot into part of a web of connectedness with all of life. It makes you realise that we are all part of the one big consciousness, and our roles are bigger than our limited identities. And thinking this way absolves the constant hysteria of wondering if you are good enough or pretty enough, or rich enough, or strong enough, or achieving enough, because it’s no longer about you and your identity. It becomes what you can be a stand for that is bigger than you, who you can help, what change you can affect. It goes from the micro of being present and attentive and loving and warm in the most minute of interactions, to the macro of big change and interconnectedness with all things. It’s something I forgot over the last year or so and stumbled upon when searching and yearning for some way to rid myself of the anxiety and humdrum of a purely material existence.
And the great thing about searching for the spiritual and seeing all things as connected is that it does not in any way impede your ability function in the material world. Sure, still focus on self growth. Get stronger and smarter and better looking, develop skills and competencies; strive. But if I can offer any advice right now, taken anecdotally from my own meandering existence, it would be to integrate into your worldview the possibility for connectedness, to see yourself as part of something bigger. To allow yourself to live outside of your identity and to feel the energy and nourishment of being part of something more. From taking time to be fully present to engaging with the person serving you coffee to searching for a deeper connectedness with all things, to being part of something bigger than yourself. I think, possibly, life could be a lot richer and more purposeful if we integrated the philosophy of connectedness into our functional, discrete, isolated worldviews.
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