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?
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?
Like countless people (I’m sure the number keeps changing), I downloaded my data and took a quick look earlier today. Hm. Pretty boring, actually. I don’t use Messenger that much, and I don’t have an Android phone, so that’s been a bit prophylactic. I’ve been in the web space for over 20 years, and from the start, I’ve been skeptical about the ability of anyone to keep me safe online. Safe from others. Safe from myself. Safe for others.
So, I’ve self-censored considerably over the years.
I hear a chorus of dismay rising up — Censor yourself?! How horrible! It seems, at times, that total freedom is the goal of our modern world, and that’s fine for everybody else. But seriously, this place is full of people who wish others less-than-well, and that’s as true online as it is offline, so caveat emptor. For days. Yeah, I’ve censored myself. And the result is that I haven’t been rocked by the shock waves of indignation that lots of other people feel.
Either that, or I’m not being pessimistic enough about how creatively data scrapers can use my PII against me.
But I digress. This isn’t really about me, after all. It’s more about us. Our need to connect, to stay connected. Our fear of missing out and getting disconnected. We all know just how easy it is to get cut off from our social circles. Sometimes, all it takes is a wrong word, a misspoken opinion, or even a look that gets taken the wrong way. You wear the wrong piece of clothing in the wrong season, and you’re a marked person. Things seem to have loosened up around the “no white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day” rule that was etched in stone during my childhood, but you know what I mean.
Sure, you do.
You know as well as I do, the feel of that internal cringe, when something comes out wrong, or somebody doesn’t respond to you the way you’d hoped. You mis-hear what someone else says and/or they misinterpret your response. And before you know it, you’ve got Problems.
Those Problems are very real, for they’re all wrapped up in the whole of our identities, our sense of safety and belonging in the world, as well as our definitions of what will and will not keep us safe. Those Problems can go so far as to get you beaten up. Even killed, if you’re in the wrong situation. It’s easier than ever, these days, to end up in the wrong part of town, and pay for it.
I’m not just talking about White folks in Black or Hispanic neighborhoods, or Black men driving through predominantly White neighborhoods. I’m talking about University of Georgia fans speaking out of turn in an Auburn sports bar — I once had an extended conversation with a woman whose husband had to be hustled out the back door of such a bar after having a few beers and running his mouth against his wife’s advice. I’m talking about somebody losing their filter while they’re in the middle of political opposites and ending up with their car keyed.
Say the wrong thing in the wrong way at work, and you can get shown the door. And there goes your monthly credit card payment, toppling your credit rating, as well as your future job prospects (since many employers run credit reports on prospective new hires). A poorly timed joke can turn from a pebble dropped in a pond to an earthquake that sets off a tsunami. Or the wrong piece of information can leak to the Wall Street Journal, and before you know it, your employer’s in full “spin mode” and you have to watch what you say to anyone and everyone, since you’re a walking, talking representative of the company.
It’s all so precarious.
Sheesh, how did we get to this place? I mean, people can get seriously hurt over things that used to just elicit eye rolls and shrugs. Ah… simpler times. I remember those days when you could detest other people (and vice versa) without homicide being in the mix. I remember when an honest misunderstanding wouldn’t push a person to social-media-fueled suicide. Apparently, I’m a dinosaur. Like I said, simpler times. Lord, how did this all get so … dire?
But here’s the thing, though. In spite of it all, I still have hope. If we got to this place, we can extract ourselves from it. I really, truly believe that. Life is cyclical. Pretty much everything alive moves in patterns of back-and-forth vacillations. And I believe with every cell in my body, we have the capacity to back away from the brink, just as we’ve danced along its edge, over and over and over again, throughout the course of human history. We’re just learning a sh*t-ton of tough lessons, right now, absorbing an array and variety of data points in massive volumes that never, ever factored into the mix, before. The Way Things Have Always Been Done… well, that’s sorta kinda imploded/exploded, and we’re left picking up the pieces that fell closest to us, trying to fit them into a cohesive narrative about our world.
So, where was I…? Oh, yeah, how easy it is to get out of sync.
And how absurd that is.
In Beloved Distance, I talk a lot about meaning… the patterns we use to figure out how what’s happened fits into our understanding of the world, as well as where events are going to take us… and how. While I was absorbed in my meditations on meaning, last year, I coincidentally happened across a lot of writing about the “absurd” state of the human condition immediately after World War II. Samuel Beckett. Albert Camus. Václav Havel. Existentialism. You know… light reading.
And it occurred to me that absurdity — the quality or state of being ridiculous or wildly unreasonable — could be seen as the quality or state of lacking meaning. After all, we rely on meaning to reason. We rely on our sense of meaning to establish balance and predictability. And our understanding of which causes lead to which effects (and why) makes it possible for us to stabilize ourselves in a confusing and disorienting world. When we lose meaning — lose the plot, lose touch with the overarching patterns — everything starts to look ridiculous and unreasonable.
Which is where Europe was after World War II with the rise of authoritarian states, and all the upheaval of the Cold War. The old monarchy and Order of Things … well, that was history. Literally. There were no clear patterns ahead, there were no circumstances that could reliably point to predictable outcomes. Everything was impossible to fathom, in a historical sense, because it was all new… and unexpected.
That, I feel, is where we are now — in the same kind of situation. Past patterns can’t be relied upon, because we’ve never had conditions like this: The Internet. Facebook (and everybody else) collecting data on a vast scale. Defense contractors deploying information warfare techniques against the civilian population in service to political interests. I’m not sure we’ve ever been here before.
And yes, it is absurd.
In the midst of it all, perhaps the most absurd aspect of it, is how disconnected we are, even as we are hyperconnected technologically. We have the means to bridge gaps, to find belonging, to become a part of something larger than ourselves, and yet… we don’t. Maybe our human natures haven’t quite caught up with our capabilities. Well, yeah. They really haven’t yet. And so we miss out on a whole lot of opportunities to make more of ourselves and our situation than what it’s been.
It’s absurd, really.
It’s like we’re not at all the macro equivalent of the billions of interconnected cells in our brains, in our bodies. It’s like we’re neurons that think we’re cut off from each other, when we’re actually in close communication and interaction, every living moment of our lives. It’s like we think we can actually function as a species, by pushing others away and cutting ourselves off.
I must admit, I have a (bad?) habit of writing books and then setting them loose in the world without supporting them in their physical incarnation. But books aren’t like wood ducklings, which can leap from their nest in the trees and find their way to the nearest water and start growing into full-sized ducks. Books need support. They’re inert — unless they’re enlivened by the people reading them. A book without a reader is a collection of words on paper, a saturation of ink on pulped trees, neatly bound and wrapped in a glossy cover. Without reader involvement, they don’t amount to much, beyond the mind of the writer.
…it’s also funny when you talk to someone about a story (you’ve been working on) for months and months, and when they’ve read it, knowing just how important it is to you, all you get back is a “it’s great. Loved it.” Inside me, I’m screaming “what else? what did you take away from it? … etc.” But no, no review… But still, it wasn’t reviews I long for, but human conversations, debate.
Beloved Distance is very much like that. It grew out of years of reading, thinking, reading some more, and thinking even more than that. And now that the book’s out, people can get hold of it, read it, react to it, and move on. Like we do with most things.
And yet… what else is there?
That’s what I’d like to find out in the new Facebook group – from readers, for readers, because of readers. The themes of the book have resonated very strongly with me for years, and the more I think about it, the more I realize I’ve just scratched the surface. And in fact, while I was writing the book, there were so many instances where I realized I just didn’t have the time and the space to say everything that I felt needed to be said about the topic at hand.
That time is now, and as I await the final notice from Amazon that the paperback is available there, I consider all the different ideas that, like puppies in a basket, are clamoring over each other to get picked up and taken home.
The book is going to mean different things to different people, and that’s the fun part of it. Some people may not care for it at all. Others may find it dramatically changes how they think about stuff that used to barely catch their notice. Others may be intrigued, then move on. But that “travel” from a state of wondering what others think to finding out… well, that’s yet another form of distance I’m looking forward to traveling.
You know those days, when you’ve been going full-speed ahead for a week, and then you realize that you’ve got all of the absolutely, positively, critical, non-optional tasks out of the way?
That’s where I am, today. After nearly a week of traveling, then chasing deadlines on Friday, running errands yesterday morning, followed by an effervescent all-afternoon/evening event, and a long drive home after dark, it’s finally sinking in that today requires very little of me.
And that’s perfectly fine.
It gives me time to think. About things that I haven’t been able to think about as deeply as I’d like. You know… work and all. Seriously, researching and writing books that have very little to do (directly) with your day job is a singular experience. Unique. And solitary. Because when you leave it all on the field after every day at work, you’ve gotta find a way to dig deep and come up with the motivation (and the moxy) to create something very different from what dominates your daily life.
Maybe your daytime colleagues are interested in the kinds of ideas that light your fire in off-hours. Maybe they’re not. Maybe people who get paid to work in the field(s) you venture into out of love and all-consuming passion notice you’re there. Maybe they don’t. In any case, it doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things — it really can’t — because what matters in the end is The Work. And the ways that the Work builds out and shapes your life in ways that no day-job, no official title, and no amount of professional acclaim ever could.
That being said, here I am at the nexus of my passionate interests, lingering road-weariness, and a full day to do with as I please. Sweet.
In a way, the weariness is useful. It keeps me focused. It keeps me from allowing my attention to wander too far afield. I don’t have a lot of bandwidth today, and my free hours are sufficiently precious to me to compel me to make the most of them. Monday is just around the corner. What can I do with myself and my ideas before then?
… hmmm …
Oh, I know! Let’s talk about who’s gonna care about this book, Beloved Distance. I was at a friend’s birthday part, yesterday afternoon, and I mentioned the book to a handful of people there. I never really know if other people are nearly as fascinated as I am about the intersection of science and the-rest-of-life, but it turns out, I was in good company. I had some great conversations with people who are concerned about the ever-widening schism between science and spirituality, and who don’t think there should be one.
Now, when we talk about spirituality, that can cover territory from devout Catholicism to Sufism to cross-quarter ritualizing Paganism. It can even extend to agnostics or atheists who feel a connection to something bigger than themselves that they don’t want to personalize. “Spirituality” has become a very useful catch-all for people to connect with one another on a metaphysical level, without getting dragged into dogma.
Of course, the “spirituality” moniker has its drawbacks — it can become a little too fuzzy, and it can be used to justify some actually harmful practices. Co-opting indigenous ceremonies and marketing them to high-priced clients craving a spiritual experience isn’t just questionable from a “spiritual ethics” point of view. It can also be downright dangerous. In only one example why it’s important to “keep it local”, certain Amazonian hallucinogenic ceremonies have a very practical reason for requiring strict diets before drinking the magic elixir that makes you vomit into that plastic trash can: some ceremonies can actually deplete necessary neurotransmitters, and dietary restrictions help offset the potential harm.
But I digress… of course I digress! I have the afternoon to myself, and I’m gonna write what I danged well please 😉
Let me return to the line of reasoning I started with — namely, who’s interested in Beloved Distance. And why.
The folks at the birthday party hailed from all walks of life. A construction contractor had a great conversation with an acupuncturist. And a freelance photographer and artist who supports herself caring for children spent a while talking to a technologist. A nationally syndicated radio show host chatted with a woman studying to become a wildlife rescuer. And an office manager for multiple programs at a nearby university caught up with a workshop facilitator who’s house-sitting for friends for the month of February. Each one of them had a perspective very different from my own — big distance there. And yet, each shared a desire — a need — a longing — for connection. All of us were keenly aware of our differences, and yet those differences drew us that much closer to one another, as we looked for points of contact, avenues that let us merge in meaningful ways.
See, here’s the thing — our human differences are often dramatic. Our politics, our money situations, our personal lives often stand in pronounced contrast to so many others around us, even our closest friends. We know we’re separate. And yet, that doesn’t stop us from actually finding ways that we can bridge the distance between each other and blend into the middle, creating a separate sort of dynamic that’s greater than the sum of each party.
And knowing that our time to connect was short yesterday, we all made the most of it. We didn’t mince words. We cut to the chase. We asked the questions you don’t normally ask in “polite” company. We answered the questions just as candidly as they were asked. We brought up subjects that we often couldn’t outside our intimate sphere. We settled the occasional argument with a mix of patience and exasperation, but always some element of letting each other just… be.
And in the end, each of us left that evening well-fed in many ways. Yes, we shared food. Yes, we had tea and cider and kombucha and coffee. Yes, we ate birthday cake (well, most of us, anyway) and enjoyed the candy that had flown out of the smashed piñata. And we also got fed in ways that went far beyond the physical. As we split up and went our separate ways into the evening, that sense of fullness traveled with us. Across the miles, hours later, it still lingers.
On the screenshot of my Windows Task Manger above, you can see the spikes where the CPU had plenty to do… then as I closed applications, it calmed down and settled into this even keel:
And so am I, now, as I settle into the rest of my afternoon.
I have time to think, which is the most precious (and limited) commodity of my current life.
May you have such a wonderful Sunday, if you’re reading this on such a day. Or, if it’s some other day, may you also find ways you can reduce the digital/electrical spikes and settle into knowing your own mind as only you can know it.
The Sarah MacLachlan song from years ago keeps running through my head. There’s something reassuring about the enduring popularity of that song (she performed it at the 2017 Juno awards), but there’s also something distressing.
Because if we keep singing about this, and the lyrics of distress from 10… 20 years ago, are still as impactful today as they were back then… well, what have we been doing in the meantime?
Waiting for someone else to fix it for us?
Maybe. I mean, we’re all busy, right? We’re all occupied with our own concerns, our own dramas, our own direction. And the problems of the world seem so vast, so overwhelming, so out of our control, it’s almost impossible to know where to start.
But we have to start somewhere, right? Even if it’s just at a level of understanding. Even if it’s just at a level of the myriad day-to-day interactions that we tend to take for granted. Every single detail in our lives does matter, and how we behave towards a total stranger leaves an impression on both them and us… and it ripples out, like a pebble tossed in a pond, affecting everyone else they and we interact with at a later point. Even if it’s just a small thing (and who among us really knows just what’s “small” or “large”?), it still matters.
It all matters.
And nowhere is that more true than in our bodies. We’re constantly picking up on signals around us. We may not perceive them — not every piece of sensory data gets through — but they’re there. And they affect us on levels we can’t even detect, much of the time. It’s quite amazing, if you think about it. How the heck do we get through life, in the first place?
But I digress.
Here we are, on the brink of a whole lot of pain. It feels like we’ve been here for an awful long time. Between international conflicts, to political struggles, to class and race clashes… the list of turbulence never seems to end. It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost too much to think about, and everyday it seems like more revelations are coming to light about what goes on in the shadows beyond the attention span/range of our distracted and otherwise-entertained population.
It may feel like too much to process, but we actually have the innate capacity to deal with it all. I’m convinced of it. Since 2013, I’ve spent a whole lot of time realizing just how well-equipped we are to handle it all — and do so with grace and mastery. We just seem to have forgotten that we can… we’ve lost touch with the qualities and capabilities that not only allow us to do it, but compel us to step forward, to engage, inquire, explore.
What we’re facing now, is (in my opinion) not so very different from challenges that past generations have faced. We’ve just forgotten some core truths about ourselves and what it means to be human and alive. Beloved Distance is all about reminding us that, yeah, we got this.
And here’s a chill remix of the now-classic song, for your listening enjoyment.
Beloved Distance – The Separation That Connects Us to All
In our modern globalized world, fraught with strife, violent conflict, and daily casualties numbering in the tens of thousands, separation is often perceived as the enemy of humanity. Keeping oneself at a distance from others is seen as the root of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and myriad other -isms which preclude even the slightest chance of peace. “To become a true global citizen,” Suzy Kassem sounds a common refrain, “one must abandon all notions of ‘otherness’ and instead embrace ‘togetherness’. … This is the only way mankind will truly evolve.”
A message of eradicating the distance between oneself and others resounds across the ages, from the Buddha’s warning, “There is … No sorrow like separation,” to John Lennon assuring us that if we all join together, “the world will be as one.” This perspective is practically a given among those who consciously seek our collective evolution. After all, the prototypical Fall from Grace was an act of separation from the Divine, as well as an innocent blindness to the difference between Good and Evil. And the antedote for our loss of grace? Unity. Connection. Oneness – the ultimate goal of an evolved species. And anyone who claims differently is likely still trapped in a toxic, dying paradigm that threatens to destroy us all.
In this work, I explore an alternative view: namely, that rather than being our enemy, Separation – or Distance – from a perceived Other is at once endemic to our human nature and an invaluable bridge to the connection we hungrily seek. And only by accepting the fact of our separation can we truly learn to creatively navigate the spaces that divide us.
Separation and Distance is, in fact, a fundamental component of our participation in this thought-form theater we term “reality”, beginning at the most basic of our sensory functions and extending throughout our entire human infrastructure. Experience of Distance from Others is not due to inferior design or devolved consciousness. Quite the contrary — it’s part and parcel of who we are, how we’re built. In this work, I propose that our acceptance of and successful integration of Separation, combined with our ongoing impulse to close the Distance between Ourselves and the Other, is the very thing which provides the essential influx, aggregation, and processing of “data points” which inform and evolve our human experience, raising it from mere existence to engaged, expanding evolution.
Starting from the following basic fact about our physical condition, that at our most minuscule neural level, we are separated from direct contact with the world around us, I will explore how:
due to this separation, we never have direct contact with anything, and
our experience of reality depends on a complex yet well-integrated process of data detection, decoding, and interpretation, which “fills in the blanks” in ways that are both enriching and problematic,
rather than suffering from separation, our experience of ourselves and our world is continuously enriched and evolved as an end product of this process, and
we can learn from our physical systems’ in-born capabilities to address the issues of “Otherness”, separation, and alienation in our outer world and actively, intentionally find commonality that makes us more than the simple sum of our connections.
We need not vilify and excise all Separation and Distance and sense of Other from our roster of acceptable life experiences. Indeed, we can holistically embrace the contradictions of Separation and the tensions of Distance in our experienced reality, in much the same way that our physical systems do. Rather than banishing the experience of Distance as “unreality”, I propose that we embrace it more fully as a building block of an expanded Reality and recognize the opportunities inherent in its gaps to take ourselves beyond the limits of our imagined constraints. For indeed, ultimately richness and meaning is added exponentially to our lives precisely becauseof the essential separateness of our natures.