Blest Be the Ties that Bind
This sort of challenge is faced by many, these days – especially in the United States. A changing job market, uncertain since the late 1980s, has shifted the workforce away from long-term employment prospects and into a sort of occupational “serial monogamy”, requiring additional training and adjustments over the course of a lifetime. An uncertain economy has prompted the relocation of countless families in search of good jobs. This trend, plus a volatile housing market has destabilized our very concept of “home”. People no longer buy houses they’ll inhabit their entire lives. They acquire properties they hope will appreciate over time, allowing them to cash out and move on to greener pastures when it becomes expedient or it’s time to retire. Uprooted from familiar environments, placed in the middle of brand new surroundings with others who may or may not be friendly, whose interests may or may not mirror your own… most of us know the feeling all too well. Especially in our modern, hyper-mobile world.
It’s pretty easy for us to get out of sync with our surroundings. We can find ourselves out of our personal element at a moment’s notice, just by taking a wrong turn in an unfamiliar locale. Take a left instead of a right, and you can find yourself in a hostile situation, facing off with someone who’s armed and dangerous. You can actually end up dead – whether in the city, the country, or the suburbs. Or you can find your entire way of life displaced by events beyond your control – market downturns, corporate mergers, even war. Whatever the scope, whatever the scale, the disorientation is intimidating. Destabilizing. Scary. Even in the most stable of unfamiliar circumstances – surrounded by friendly (but unfamiliar) co-workers at a new job – the conditions are less than ideal.
Now, what would ideal conditions be like? What would ease the discomfort of alienation? For most of us, it would be finding a place where we feel comfortable, at home, among friends and family who love, accept, and support us for who we truly are. Work-wise, it would involve a job where our skills and abilities are recognized, and our co-workers respect and value us and welcome us as one of their own. Interpersonally, it would involve a world where we don’t have to become “someone else” to fit in, where we don’t have to watch t.v. shows we dislike or talk about things that don’t interest us, to succeed socially in our immediate surroundings. Ideally, we’d have a sense of connection to something larger than ourselves, while being true to our own values.
Personally, professionally, and politically, connection is what we seek. A feeling of unity with others can foster compassion. It prompts loving kindness. It envelops us in a sense of belonging that eases the pain and fear of the modern world. Alone-time with your partner in a new house settles your jangled job-hunting nerves. Family time over the holidays eases your existential angst. Whether at home, at work, or in a place of worship, interacting with neighbors or co-workers or an intimate partner, we instinctively look to others like us for support and companionship. We go out of our way to connect, venturing out into the cold, threatening weather, to meet the new neighbors. We hope they’re like us – or at least are accepting of our differences. When we have things in common, we feel a sense of relief. When we don’t share key interests – kids or pets or employment status – that has a chilling effect. And heart-felt connection eludes us.
The peak experience is a sense of oneness we don’t have to work at. We long to just be with someone else without needing to say a word. It’s comforting, soothing. It tells us we have a place in the world. And it’s even better, when we don’t have to work at it. Our favorite songs celebrate love at first sight, our popular culture lauds feeling an instant connection with another person – even a total stranger, whose company “just feels right”. We’re certain it’s possible. It must be! Most of us have experienced that at least once in our lives. It’s alluring, enticing. We’ll go to great lengths to find it. And when we find it, we sing its praises.
Likewise, a lack of connection with others is what many of us dread. When we’re “out of sync” with our surroundings (like when the new neighbors make it clear that they’re quite different from you, or your co-workers are suffused with delight over t.v. shows you can’t relate to at all), it feels awkward. Uncomfortable. Even a little dangerous. Being an outsider is dangerous – for you and the group. It calls you out as someone who for some reason isn’t connected with others, who’s killing the unity buzz. And we’ll go to great lengths to avoid being that person.