Ginger is *so* over it

Picture of dog looking very concernedI’m feeling a little bit like poor Ginger, here…

In all honesty, this whole COVID-19 experience has been pretty emotionally exhausting, what with all the worry about what if I catch it and die?! (which is a totally valid concern, and one I share with a lot of folks)… and then all the people running around like Woo Hoo! Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die (and take everyone around us down with us, I might add).

It’s not every day that people get to stare their mortality in the face, quite like we’ve been forced to do.

And it’s not every day that we have to take responsibility for our impacts on others, quite like we’re currently unable to avoid.

So, yeah, this is a very unique situation we’re in. And like Ginger (above), I’ve realized that I’m just NOT cut out to be an emotional support person to the entire world.

Okay, okay, my immediate family excluded, of course. I’m not going to stop supporting my partner or my other loved ones. But lemme tell you… everybody – and I mean everybody – I’m coming across, these days, seems to need some sort of emotional support in the midst of this storm. I mean, that’s how we’re built, right?

It seems to me, the more separated we are by our social distancing and the moratorium on close personal contact, the more needy everybody’s getting. Have you noticed that? Maybe you’re one of the people who’s increasingly annoyed by this. Maybe you’re one of the people whose neediness is spiking through the roof, the longer you’re not allowed to be around a lot of other people. I don’t blame you, if you are.  It’s how we’re built.

Because here’s the thing — and this is core to the whole concept of my book, Beloved Distance —  the human being is built to connect. Or maybe I should say, the human doing is built to connect. After all, connection is what we do… while separate is what we are. And the more we are kept from connecting, the more our drive to connect is strengthened and enhanced. See, we have about 90,000 miles of neurons in our bodies, sending the signals that make life possible in a nearly infinite variety of ways. From sensory experiences to movement to complex thought to basic reflexes, information travels our “wiring” with mind-boggling speed.

But while all those miles of wires interlace our system, the one thing that actually makes them work – that makes them transmit the information we need to live, breathe, and go about our lives – is the distance embedded within. For our neurons are not directly connected. It sounds strange, but they just aren’t. They are divided by “synapses” – tiny gaps across which neurotransmitters pass, to send the neural messages that keep us  alive. In fact, if we didn’t have those gaps, we probably wouldn’t survive, because the electrical signals actually degrade when they’re passed along a physical pathway, and the neurotransmitters “jump start” the strengths (and natures) of the signals when they get to those synaptic gaps.

Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

What a lot of people don’t realize (actually, just about everybody doesn’t realize), is that the whole reason we are able to think and move and live and breathe and exist and do much more than exist, is because of the distance that is embedded in our systems.

Rather than distance being something that blocks us, it’s actually something that animates us, that enlivens us, that makes us who and what we really, truly are.

So, there you go. Our connections matter to us. Our direct connections mean so much to us. But when you get down to it, it’s the distance that actually strengthens our connections. Just like not being able to directly contact our extended family members, makes us all the more eager to reach out in new and different ways, the gaps in our neurology sparks our biochemistry to get our bodies’ messages where they need to go.

When you don’t have that distance, and you can’t catch a break… well, you can end up like Ginger, up there.

So totally over it.

Well *that* didn’t take long…

Practice thy social distancing: If thou canst smite them, thou art too close.
Picture of two medieval warrior fighting with swords, protecting themselves with shields.

Almost five months ago, I posted here about how separations really drive our economy. And I thought to myself, “Yeah, that’s fine I can post about this, but are people ever going to really get it about how important distance is to our daily lives, not to mention our survival?”

Now, separation is a part of our daily lives. Like it or not, we’re all involved in a master class of how to live life without the usual contacts we have with family, friends, co-workers, and all the people who used to annoy us, whom we suddenly miss (or not).

And any case I wanted to make about how we actually need distance in our lives, has been made for me. An invisible (yet deadly) little organism is making its way through our world, thanks to close contact. And one of the few ways we actually know we can address this is to keep our distance.

These days, we’re all (hopefully) social distancing. Or at the very least, we’re being urged to practice social distancing, in hopes of limiting the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. Memes abound (see above), some of them more entertaining than others. Some are hilarious. Others… well, they’re memes, after all. And as all of this unfolds, with few of us feeling truly safe, needless to say, we’re all looking for the meaning in this.

Some folks look to their faith. Some look to science. Some look to their leaders. Some look to data, patterns, trends. Others watch t.v. or go online (and stay there). But wherever we look, the impulse is the same — to find the meaning in all of this… To understand. To not feel like our lives are being completely wasted over nothing, and that we and the ones we care about, truly do count for something in this impersonal world that frankly doesn’t seem to give a damn about whether we live or die, these days.

To be honest, I’m not sure whose “camp” I’m in. Maybe all of them – an eclectic mix of faith and science and data and pattern-finding and television murder mysteries and social media. I can see the value in all of them. Tho’, to be honest, I don’t look much to leaders these days, other than to figure out if their policies are likely to get me killed or not. Everybody’s free to look wherever they like for direction and comfort. I’ll never begrudge anyone their own inclination. But I’ve been thinking about distance and separation for years, now — which goes back to long before the several years I spent researching and writing Beloved Distance.

And in the midst of this all, I find some unlikely comfort that the patterns I recognized about humanity’s dance with distance are playing out just as I’d expect. It’s not that the circumstances are great – they’re not. But at least I recognize the general awfulness that’s making the rounds, these days.

Right now, I’ll take whatever comfort I can find.

The ties that bind, the separations that connect

separate goldfish in bagsA couple of years ago, I wrote this book, Beloved Distance, about how we’re essentially separate from each other… and we can never be in direct contact with anything.  Our billions of neurons, which transmit the data that connect us with the world around us, are always – by definition – separate. They don’t touch. They’re almost impossibly close to each other, yet they’re not in direct contact with each other.

Synapse IllustrationAnd yet, that very separateness is what connects us. Because the gap between synapses makes room for neurotransmitters, the biochemicals that pass along the information we need to make sense of the world around us. And our neurotransmitters provide a richness, a sort of “analog” data transmission that’s qualitative, as opposed to the “digital” electronic signals that pass along the incredibly complex (and long) network of our nervous system.

Like light, we are both particle and wave. We’re both neuron/synapse and neurotransmitter. That’s what makes us what we are. That’s what makes us how we are. And if our neurons were in direct contact with each other, we’d both short-circuit (because the data transmission would be too much, too soon) and never have the varied experiences that our biochemicals give us.

So, yeah. We’re like light, in that respect.

And now that quantum computing is getting all kinds of press (at least in the circles I run in) and other AI/Machine Learning/Deep Learning is picking up speed in active development and deployment, this whole concept segues nicely with the spirit of the day.

I wrote this book about 2 years ago. And I figured it would be a number of years (say, 10+) before other people would notice that it mattered. I’ve been a strong believer that it matters, all along. Ever since I first grasped what that picture of the neuron was telling me, oh, about 12 (?) years ago, I’ve believed it matters. And since I’ve been reading about quantum physics for close to 20 years*, a lot of what I’ve uncovered in the past decade or so really has some nice correlations with the quantum world view. Or maybe my quantum worldview came first and helps me make sense of the biochemistry and neurology…? Who knows?

Anyway, it’s all connected, as some like to say. And yeah, from everything I can tell and have observed in my half a century+ on this planet… It is.

*I’m a huge fan of David Bohm, and on some level, quantum concepts all make total sense to me. Why is it taking so long for everybody to catch on? 😉

So, what does this have to do with anything that matters to anyone else?

Isn’t this just some rambling of an inquisitive mind who loves to explore the reaches of PubMed, ArXive, Frontiers and more? Isn’t this just some philosophical hoo-hah that’s an indulgence at best, an annoying distraction from what really matters, at worst?

Well, I believe that this isn’t just about me, and it’s certainly not something that I came up with. I just noticed it and realized how much it matters. And yeah, I do believe it matters… especially today. We’re relentlessly inundated with a constant stream of disruptive, interruptive, disjointed, unconnected, random data points that scream (and I mean scream) for our attention. And we’ve become increasingly unhinged from the world we inhabit and the lives we want to lead.

We mourn, on the one hand, for oceans that are dying from too much plastic… and yet, we don’t hesitate to go out and buy all kinds of stuff packaged in plastic that never gets recycled. We bemoan our political fates, yet we don’t actually engage with the people or the process. We curse all sorts of forces around us, as though we have no control or influence… at a time when the average person has more control and influence than maybe ever in the past hundreds, even thousands, of years. The cognitive dissonance is deafening. And yet, we persist in making choices that go directly against our own best interests, even survival.

I’m not saying we need to each radically up-end our habits, and do away with every offending act and thought. It’s an idea, but it’s probably not all that sustainable.

What I am suggesting is that we just might be able to get more of a connection with our larger lives, by looking within our systems and better understanding how we — each and every one of us — functions at the cellular level. You can learn a lot from looking at the drawing of a synapse… especially if you really think about what you’re looking at.

The human race has always looked up for meaning. We’ve looked to the stars… to big-picture concepts… mythology… beliefs… religions… philosophies… storytelling in books as well as on the small and big screens… we’ve searched high and low for ways to make sense of our world. And now, since we have the equipment and the capability, we can also look within — literally — to find new clues from our cellular makeup about what it means to be us, what it means to be human… what it means to be here.

That’s ultimately what Beloved Distance is all about — looking at some very, very tiny stuff, to see if there’s any big meaning there.

I’ve found a lot of it.

You might, too.

So, what does all this have to with cooling our world on fire?

So, what does all this have to with cooling our world on fire?So, what does all this have to with cooling our world on fire? How does this help us find unity and a sense of connection with others? As discussed, affinity groups are defined not only by who’s in, but by who’s out. In a close-knit community, it’s perhaps even more critical to know who doesn’t belong, than it is to know who does belong. That knowledge protects us from threats. It secures our borders. It reassures us that we can let our guard down around the people near us, because the ones who aren’t safe have been banished to the regions beyond our walled community. Our tendency to look for differences, to compete, and to disqualify is an absolutely integral, protective human inclinations. It’s important. Our society might not exist, if we didn’t have it.

But wait – isn’t Othering harmful? Isn’t finding and emphasizing separation and alienation an actual contributor to our collective pain and suffering? Isn’t this diametrically opposed to the ideal goal of Unity and Oneness? Rather than pushing people out and forcing them “off the island”, shouldn’t we be doing the exact opposite: welcoming them in, with all their diversity of abilities and traits, to include them in our unified community?

Maybe.

Maybe.

We look for connection, we seek it, we crave it, we have to have it.

And yet, separating ourselves from others is the one sure way we have that quality-controls the “social container” we inhabit. Othering (both ourselves and other people) makes it possible for us to feel safe, to feel protected, to know who we’re dealing with and what the rules of engagement are.

You can’t just let anybody in…

As harsh as that may sound, it’s really the way our communities function. To feel like we belong, we need to know who doesn’t belong, and we need to keep them out. So the ones allowed in, are in.

Human nature. It’s just how we function.

And there it is.

But what about the harm that separation is doing to us?

What about that…?