I began 2020 with a question I wanted to ask of everything I do and am: Does it increase connection? I had no idea how much that question would be challenged in a year of social isolation and lockdowns. And no idea how much I’d need to interrogate what I meant by ‘connection’ in the first year that I was unable to be with family for Christmas and New Year.
How we connect has been a major pre-occupation for most people in a coronavirus-dominated world, and remains so. But it’s urgency is no less and the fact that we are connected to all life remains fundamental to how we work as arists and writers.
In the novel, Howard’s End, E M Forster writes:
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.
Connection not overwhelm
We know that all life is connected. In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram says it with poetic fervour:
Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth — our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.
But for most of us, knowing this and feeling it, embodying it in such a way that we are able to ‘live in fragments no longer’, can seem like a hard injunction to put into practice.
For one thing, connection can feel overwhelming. As George Eliot notes:
If we had a keen vision of all that is ordinary in human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which is the other side of silence.
We don’t have to let in every blade of grass to get to the point of overwhelm, either. A few newspaper articles about the state of the world, ecological degradation, political corruption or appalling working conditions in a factory whose goods we just purchased … or even one of those articles, can be enough on some days to leave us feeling helpless in the face of our connectedness.
I can’t save the world. Nor can you. Not one of us can. But many together can make a difference and any one of us can have some effect for good whenever and wherever we honour and deepen a connection (whether internally or by reaching out).
Connection as compassion
Whenever we show compassion; each time we pay attention and listen – to those suffering, to the earth, to our own bodies, to a friend who needs some small act of kindness, to whatever is calling us, then we shape the clay of the universe to be just a little better.
Compassion is radical, it is a sharing of suffering, it is sympathy so deep that it moves us to our guts. It requires attention: real focus, not a distracted nod in its direction. Compassion listens. And in that listening the connection enlarges the souls of all involved. Compassion is an act of resistance in the face of overwhelm — we don’t have to do it all, save it all. We do the good that we can and this transforms the story of fear to one of hope.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt noted that the way to overcome fear and feelings of overwhelming powerless is to connect to others:
[Hu]man[ity] as such, her/his essence, cannot be defined because s/he always desires to belong to something outside her/himself and changes accordingly… If s/he could be said to have an essential nature at all, it would be lack of self-sufficiency. Hence, s/he is driven to break out of her/his isolation by means of love… for happiness, which is the reversal of isolation…
Connection as unselfing
Connection is intrinsic to being human. It is intrinsic to all life. Despite what thinkers like Emerson would have us believe, it’s not self-reliance or rugged ‘self-made’ independence that is the mark of our spiritual or emotional maturity, but our connection; our kindness.
This in no way lessens the importance of our interior life and imagination, but rather calls us to take all that we are and learn how to face what is in the world with kindness and mercy so that we can not only cerebrally think we are connected to all of life, but feel and embody it. Connection is bodiful.
And our greatest hope, as a species and for this planet, is in connection. As Whitman put it:
Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
To honour the other and to recognise our connectedness is as deeply soulful as it is bodiful and demands a largesse that requires humility and flexibility. It requires owning that we are all made in the crucibles of community and culture and stand on the shoulders of those who want before.
Moreover, it predicates an unselfconsciousness of the type Madeleine L’Engle explored in Glimpses of Grace. L’Engle noted that the self is neither constant nor rigid and to behave as though it is undermines our attempts at creativity. Quite simply, we have to cease from thinking the universe revolves around us. We have to rid ourselves of hubris and instead give ourselves over to play, joy and self-forgetfulness. These are states that the writer knows, loves and seeks; states that allow us to glory in a sunset, connect with a child over a picture-book, connect with the neighbour who needs help … And connect with the language that flows through our writing.
Being aware of the multitudinous ways in which we are connected prevents us from holding ourselves aloof in stiff pride, prevents us from trying to be free of risk or thinking of ourselves as ‘apart’. And these same attitudes also facilitate deep diving into writing and creativity. To live well and to write well takes risk, vulnerability and generosity.
What’s more, the sense of being in flow is intimately connected with the feeling of being beyond ‘self’. Exploring the many layers of connection in our lives is vital to the artist’s practice because it moves us out of the fixed self-image that we may zealously guard in daily life, but which can prove more of a prison than a liberation when we want to soar with imagination and write from body and soul. We are who we are becoming, and this is an endless narrative with leaky boundaries.
The tension between the enormity of our subjective experience of consciousness and the realisation that clinging to a monolithic ego is a prison is one that Walt Whitman describes lyrically in Leaves of Grass:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
I am large, I contain multitudes.
Connection as wonder
If connection moves us out of the narrow confines of ego, it also opens us up to experiences of awe. Wonder is an emotion that not only connects us to all things but also gives us a home, a sanctuary not in knowing it all, and pride, but as sojourners in the wide mystery of life. As Einstein put it:
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious, the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.
There is a wild self-forgetting at the heart of connection that allows us to live with mystery and take solace from the enormity of life itself. As Diane Ackerman writes in An Alchemy of Mind:
I often resort to such words as sacred, grace, reverence, worship, holy, sanctity, and benediction, which I cherish as powerful feelings, moods, and ideas. I’m an Earth ecstatic, and my creed is simple: All life is sacred, life loves life, and we are capable of improving our behavior toward one another. As basic as that is, for me it’s also tonic and deeply spiritual, glorifying the smallest life-form and embracing the most distant stars.
Connection as now
We need connection as artists and writers, not to overwhelm ourselves, but to forget ourselves, to let the ego rest while we play with language, risk being open and vulnerable, show compassion and revel in the sheer abundance of wonder in the universe.
And we find this connection in those moments when we slow down, pause and live in the present.
It is only by calling past and future into the present of remembrance and expectation that time exists at all. Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.
writes Hannah Arendt in Love and Saint Augustine.
So much of life is swallowed by busyness or anxiety, both of which make us see ourselves and the world in fragments. We start to think of our inner life as separate from our body, our particular body as separate from nature, the ‘nature’ in the local part as separate from wilderness.
We need, of course to name things, to enrich the world with the precise attention that language can augment, in order to care about each part that makes up the whole, but we also need to hold this in creative tension with the vision of the whole. And to do this demands that we sometimes, as much as each of our lives allows, live in the moment. That we sometimes are so much in the present that we truly become present.
Connection to live in fragments no longer
If we stop thinking of ourselves and our world as compartmentalised pieces, some of which we can neglect, but instead think, with Whitman, of the whole body, of multitudes within the one, then holism is inevitable. We no longer live in fragments. And our writing, soulful and embodied becomes part of the story of connection.
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — if you’d like to join writers who are diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, sign up to my email list. You’ll also find free courses here on the site as well as online courses of different lengths here. While you’re browsing, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life.
Lizzie Eldridge says
This is such a powerful, beautiful and deeply important piece of writing and thank you for breathing it into the world. The world can indeed feel overwhelming and those moments of connection can be resisted with anger and fear. Thank you for reminding me that those small acts – things maybe we don’t even notice or realise in the busyness of our thought-spinning lives – are significant and that in ‘losing’ oneself in the flow, one truly finds oneself, and others.
Loved this piece and thank you again for writing so exquisitely and in a way that moves me physically and spiritually. Thank you.
Marina Sanchez says
Thanks Jan for such beautiful and big hearted blog 🙂
A couple of things, first, I heard a dullah speaking recently about the babies that are being born and she shared that most of them have a different quality of consciousness than most babies in that they are fully present souls. Sounds like your granddaughter is one…
Secondly, I love what you said about compassion in a fearful world, we really needed masses at the moment as so many are suffering.
As for connection, yes, like so many, I miss it so much, that physical sense of fearless bumping, touching and feeling part of humanity that has been taken away from us.
Here’s to remaining centred while this situation lasts and being resourced and resourcing our well of creativity.
Love and gratitude
Thank you Jan, as always such a thoughtful piece. I must work on my feelings of dis – connection, which is all to easy. It is easier (for me at least) to concentrate on what isn’t there, and there is so much absence right now that its hard to rise above that. But, I will certainly work on this and look at what IS, I’m not sure it will heal the absence of children and little ones but it is certainly another perspective. Thank you.
Anne Bateman says
Thank you Jan, your blog always recentres me but this one is particularly powerful. How is it that at one moment I can feel so connected with the universe and the writing flows and at another moment an insidious fear of losing control creeps in in increments and I am stuck “aloof in stiff pride, (which) prevents us from trying to be free of risk or thinking of ourselves as ‘apart’. “ ?
Maybe it’s important to face the fear, accept it’s there and move on. As a friend said, there’s only so much Dunkirk spirit we can do and this has been going on for a long time now! Yes, I miss my family and freedom to move around, yes, I weep for the loss of all these things but it will pass and leave behind our connections to each other and the earth. Thank-you Jan for this piece which has helped me to see a possible way through.