In our ongoing dance of far-close–closer-farther, we rely on some types of distances to overcome others. As discussed before, physical distance can give you the time (temporal distance) you need to close a conceptual gap. You see a stranger approaching, and you step back to widen the physical distance and figure out who they are and how you should interact with them. You pause before responding to their greeting, so you can connect the dots of what they just said to you… and come up with a measured response. That time-extended response will probably be “closer” to what you mean, than a blurted reaction, and if you use your physical and temporal distance wisely, it can actually help close the conceptual space and create a positive social connection.
Even with established social connections, separation can help us. Think back to the scene of the Saturday morning emergency. The one person who was best able to make sense of that situation was a newcomer who didn’t make assumptions about what they were seeing. You might think the neighbors who knew that elderly woman best would be better at helping her. An outsider was able to respond more effectively than longtime acquaintances who jumped to conclusions based on their conditioned perceptions. It wasn’t separation that fed the confusion – it was the mistaken perception of connection. Likewise, when the neighbors realized that there was a serious gap between reality and what they thought was happening, they jumped into action and helped. The dynamic interplay of separate state and connecting process moves us forward, just as two neighbors reached out to connect with the elderly woman in crisis and others went to intercept the emergency vehicles
Venturing into the void of the social unknown can be scary stuff, and every new encounter with a stranger, every start to an unfamiliar process, is a step into that void. To do that comfortably, we need to have a solid sense of our own identity, a clear sense of where we fit. Our separateness from others, our autonomy, our individuality, offers us a firm foundation, like a stable boardwalk winding through a swampy bog. We rely on the firmness of our own identity, our own self-awareness, our own individuality within a larger but distinct community which makes us us, in the midst of an often mucky, treacherous world. That sense of individual autonomy and communal belonging is only possible if we separate ourselves from others (and the world around us). As many a teenager can attest, we need to feel separate, we need to be other, in order to comfortably connect with the rest of the world. Our cultural exchanges mean nothing, if we don’t have distinct customs to compare and contrast.
And yet, distance still bothers us. It’s an irritant. It’s intimidating. No matter how convinced we are that our systems are naturally riddled with gaps, no matter how well we understand the limitations of our perceptions, no matter how aware we are of our prejudices and biases, the idea of disunity still makes us nervous. And so it should. We’ve seen the harm it does to marginalized populations with its “-isms”. We’ve seen the toll taken by cutting some in on the bounty, while pushing others away. We all know the pain of separation from loved ones, the safety of friends and family, or the larger purpose of the community. Why would we ever want to get used to that?
Because it compels us to connect. Just as light is both a particle and a wave, so is our system comprised of both a state of separation and a process of connection. And if we get too comfortable with one at the expense of the other, failing to appreciate the advantages of the other, we lose out on the incredible potential of that dynamic interplay.