Updated: Aug 4, 2022
Can you think of a time when you had (or were) just what somebody else needed? Perhaps you really ‘got’ what they were saying, and you felt connected. Perhaps the person had a problem and you had just the solution, or just the skills needed for the matter at hand. It feels good right? A moment of belonging.
I think the first time I really felt like this was when I was fourteen and I started playing music. For the first time in my life I’d found something I was good at and everywhere I played people smiled and praised me. I wrote songs easily and took my singing voice for granted. For much of my life I’d been a loner, circling around school playing fields in a daydream, but discovering music, all of a sudden people were talking about me (in a good way!), they asked me to play for them, they wondered if I wanted to start up a band. A moment of belonging.
Here I want to advance a new synthesis: on connectedness; experienced as meeting others on the same wavelength, enjoying the magic of connection. As I’ve been musing on this idea it sheds important light on some of the existential themes I’ve been exploring in recent posts.
Aside from the phenomenology of connectedness – what it feels like – I should start by saying a bit about what I understand by word. I see us as inextricably part of networks – whether these are the families we belong to, our friendship groups, our communities, our places of work, and wider society. Some of us feel more deeply connected – more central - within those networks than others; some of us may experience a loss or a lack of connectedness as loneliness i.e. we may experience ourselves as further towards the periphery; some of us may work very hard to be included, to be allowed into the fold and to feel like we belong. However connectedness doesn’t just include connections with other human beings. I’m thinking connectedness could also include our connection with non-human beings, with the environment, with nature, with art, and with knowledge.
To develop this theory we could think of connectedness as made up on our interactions: interactions with the people around us, and with our environment. Some people enjoy a more diverse range of interactions than others, and some of us may enjoy a higher quality of interactions, which I’ll explain below. But thinking about interactions in this way, I came up with the following equation to measure or quantify a state of connectedness over a certain period of time, whether a day, a week, a year, or a lifetime:
(* means multiped by: the product of the two denotes a degree of connectedness)
Let’s break these down, starting with diversity. Some of us may feel that life has become monotonous – perhaps we’ve got stuck in a rut, or perhaps we do one or two things really well but that we don’t branch out any further. In these cases diversity is low. Others may feel that their day or their week is full of different kinds of interactions and as such that diversity is high. One could even propose a supplementary equation:
If we imagine endless doomscrolling on social media, or even hours performing the same task repetitively on a production line, the measure of diversity would be low. But it’s also clear that diversity of interactions alone doesn’t necessarily mean fulfilment. I’m imaging the stay at home Mum or Dad, or a full-time carer, who might once have had a career, or aspirations beyond parenthood or caring. Their day to day life might contain a high diversity of different interactions, however they may still feel like they are not expressing themselves through any of them; and may even feel they are losing their identity.
Which is where the other factor comes in: dimensionality. I have written more expansively on dimensionality in previous blogs, perhaps particularly On Holograms and Seeing Through Time. Dimensionality is a measure of the quality of the interaction. Dimensionality is associated with the qualities of specialness, complexity, rarity, skill, mental absorption, and integration. If we’re cooking a meal or painting on canvas, some of us will perform these generic acts to a greater degree of specialness than others. Karate belts and piano gradings create an agreed curriculum in which we are able to discern which interactions are more special than others within that curriculum. Dimensionality furthermore is the capacity to go deeply into something – to see hidden layers and patterns, like a scientist poring through the evidence, or a craftsperson seeing the potential in raw materials. Imagine for instance a plot of land: an architect might see the potential to build a house, an ecologist might see the potential to gauge the indicator species within the plot of land as a measure of the health of the wider environment – these interactions with the environment would have a high dimensionality. Others might see in the land a piece of real estate to be sold, a make-do football pitch for a kick about, a cut through for the next dog walk, or a dumping ground for fly tipping. These interactions have less complexity about them, and as such a lower dimensionality. I’ve thought of dimensionality before as consciousness itself unfurling, like a concertina opening up, or the pop up book which becomes three dimensional when the page is opened.
Importantly, the connectedness equation can apply to individuals or to the networks in which we find ourselves. The only difference is whether we consider only those interactions which involve us, or rather all the interactions within a certain network.
So how does this relate to the existential themes I’ve been exploring recently? Well what I think is that we feel our existential aloneness and angst more acutely when we perceive a gap between our capacity for connectedness and our actual state. Imagine for example a brilliant poet of the English language who is shipwrecked on an island where all the inhabitants speak French – they have such beauty to offer but no-one can receive it. Or a brilliant violinist washed up on the same island where there are no violins to play. They know they have something rich to offer but cannot realise it through interaction. I think this is an analogy for existential aloneness – we wish to express rich, authentic parts of ourselves but no-one can meet us there.
Likewise if we perceive the potential to lose a state of connectedness – with the clearest example being when we face the inevitability of our own ageing, decline, and death – then the greater the loss of connectedness, the more existential angst we experience.
So there is a little bit more to say here than just that we ought to aspire towards more diverse, higher quality interactions with other people and with the environment, because ageing, decline, and death are inevitable existential themes presented to all of us. So what to do if we know we will age, and therefore our state of connectedness will inevitably go into decline? Well, this is the loveliest bit of the theory I think. The answer rests upon the proposal that:
In maturity we progress from a concern for personal connectedness towards a concern for transpersonal connectedness.
If we look back on the equation, we become less concerned with the diversity and the quality of our own interactions, and increasingly we become concerned with the diversity and quality of interactions within the networks which we find ourselves within. I think this myself as an educationalist working with a university – I want to see our students realise more diverse and higher quality connections than I myself will ever get to enjoy. I feel this all the more fundamentally as a Dad.
Thus the image is of a conservationist, a curator, a librarian, a gardener. It is a transpersonal connectedness which is concerned with the connectedness of the network as a whole. If we are devoted to improving the connectedness of the network as a whole, we may personally enjoy and feel the benefits of that, but so does everybody else, and that state of connectedness does not depend on us personally remaining on the top of our game, when we know that that is biologically impossible. Think of the sports coach or the dance teacher who can no longer realise the same physical heights they did when they themselves were young, but can instead place their students at the centre of the picture – and raise them up to soar even higher. The elder withdraws from the centre purposefully and meaningfully; an increasingly anonymous steward overseeing the lands. In this way we decentre whilst other actors enter the stage; we accept our ageing and decline, but we land softly, and existential anxieties are soothed.