“Are we living in end times? … Either way, it is hard not to feel that we are being shown a glimpse of a future to which we should expect to become accustomed. And when the world around you is physically changing, it is almost impossible for your perspective not to change with it… It may be tempting to put our faith in the idea that this is but a temporary assault, something seasonal that will pass. We may embrace our inner pragmatist and determine to simply get on with things while counselling ourselves not to panic. We may well seek comfort in the religious and the abstract. But while it is good to rationalise and philosophise and spiritualise, it doesn’t change the fact that we are sensory animals who live in the physical world and if the temperature rises, we feel it. If the air turns sour, we smell and taste it. If the forests burn, we hear the roar of the blaze, and we see the charred aftermath.”
In January of this year in Melbourne, in the midst of a historically dreadful summer of bush fires in Australia, I wrote the words above in the post In It Together in which I argued that we have no choice but to share our life experience, good or bad, with others.
As this very long, very demanding year draws to a close, have we not all come to more deeply appreciate the others in our lives? Do we all not appreciate more the value of our relationships? Have you, like me, recognised with stark clarity how fundamentally relational we are? How we are wired for connectivity? And I don’t mean your internet connection, I’m talking about our interpersonal yearning, our social impulse, our desire for closeness.
Alone time is all well and good, but it’s nice to have the choice. I mean, I enjoy my own company, and I have had a lot of it this year, but there’s only so much navel fluff one man can eat – I’m beginning to know what my cat must feel like after a dedicated spell of self-grooming. Enough is enough, I’m ready to present myself for public consumption once more!
But of course, it still isn’t as simple as that in this current moment. With various states of lockdown still in play, with health concerns, with the understandable wariness when the endpoint is still far from clear, there is still justification to delay stepping out. And this means for many of us, there is still the elemental presence of silence and space. These are both distancing factors that delay, compromise, obstruct, or simply rule out, contact. And surely it is contact that we crave to affirm that we are still here, that we are still a part of things, that we have not been forgotten.
The nature of a prolonged period of hardship or deprivation is that there will inevitably be a high rate of attrition. Simply put, some people won’t cope, won’t keep faith, won’t endure. Time really is a factor here. Most of us are reasonably well-equipped to put up with the ‘normal’ range of life’s tribulations. We understand over time that certain ups and downs are to be expected. We even grasp the truth that a certain allocation of difficulty can be edifying – it can strengthen our resolve, it can teach us about ourselves, it can steel us for future challenges.
Those life lessons, however, normally eventuate within the comings and goings of the known patterns and rhythms of social and commercial behaviour. And those patterns and rhythms involve freedom of movement and choice with which we can give licence to our spontaneity. It also means we are free to seek the best avenue of solace or comfort when we encounter adversity. When those freedoms are removed, we are suddenly much worse off in terms of our coping mechanisms. The routes we would normally travel on to seek remedy are no longer on the map.
The resulting sensation is one of being cut off from what was a familiar world. In the short term, we are quick to adapt and accept the necessary compromise. We look in instead of out. We turn not to others, but to ourselves. We re-examine and re-evaluate what’s at hand. We have lemons and we make lemonade. But as the short term evolves into the mid-term, and that becomes the long-term, the pride of self-sufficiency begins to lose its sheen. We admit entry to the fear that this altered state may not be so temporary and that we may become altered with it, and that change may not be temporary either.
That fear of deep, radical change within our very being, triggers something primal in us. We instinctively trusted that we would be the constant in this crazy worldwide experiment. When we start to sense that we are coming apart at the seams and that our essential grasp of self is spilling onto the floor like so much stuffing, then we are suddenly very vulnerable to being overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. Our faith in the survivability of the crisis is no longer so secure because we have found ourselves now under assault from within as well as without. And that is a doorway through which doubt and anxiety can very successfully take over.
Seeking contact with others is a sure way to shut that door. Our social connection with those we care about is integral to our sense of self. The success and health of those relationships is integral to our sense of wellbeing. And if you’re one of those people, and I believe there are many, who is sick of words like ‘wellbeing’ and ‘wellness’, why not think of it as simply feeling ‘right’. As in the opposite of when you say “I don’t feel right.” Why not engage with the idea of rightness, not in the moral or ethical sense, but in the typographical or gyroscopic sense of being aligned equally, being balanced and symmetrical. There’s a sense of aesthetic, felt satisfaction that comes with that particular spatial harmony.
Personally, I have had too many moments recently of feeling off-kilter, all jagged edges and rough cuts. And what that means for those closest to me is that I become hard to handle. I can’t even handle myself! In that state, I distrust the relationships in my life. Everything is askew, everything is in the wrong place, nothing is to be relied upon. A toxic state of mind is thrown up and infects a normally healthy perspective. That may sound rather dire, but all it is is a response. It’s a response to the stress and anxiety and isolation and disconnection. It is a response to myself. And why am I responding to myself? Because I mistakenly believe that there is no one to talk to.
The burden of contact is not on others. It is on me. I have to look at the space between myself and others and see how it can be bridged. I have to regard the silence between us and see what can be communicated to provoke a response. I have to keep faith that all good relationships have not ceased to be good just because we are collectively struggling to make sense of this pandemic-afflicted year. I have to look into the dark and trust that there are loved ones on the other side, staring with eyes that want to see, listening with ears that want to hear.
Attritional. We have to play the long game. Our inner strength needs to be nourished by a deeper faith in ourselves and others. The relationships that sustain us are not going anywhere. Time tests them, bends them out of shape, renders them unrecognizable and occasionally unbearable, but because they’re the ones worth having, they realign and justify and prove true.
We don’t have to place the restoration of those relationships in the future tense. We don’t have to say we can’t wait till this is over to see each other again. They exist now. They are now. We are here because of them and they continue to sustain us even when the phone doesn’t ring or the knock doesn’t strike the door. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try and make contact.
Making contact is one of the main reasons I write here. It’s right there in the three-word subheading of the website – connecting. That’s about contact. It’s about joining things together. It’s a negation of isolation, of removal, of separation. It’s about speaking into the dark and waiting for a response. It’s trusting that there’s someone out there. It’s having faith that I’m not just talking to myself.
Having started this post with a reflection from January, it seems appropriate to conclude with a thought for December. Here in Ireland, December brings the shortest day of the year, just a few days before Christmas. The winter solstice is when we are furthest from the heat and light of the sun and so we have to create our own sources of insulation and illumination. We draw closer our nearest and dearest and strengthen our bonds of love and alliance. We share gifts and drink and food. We make welcome guests in our homes and at our hearth. Not mere indulgence of our physical appetites, it is nourishment also for the unseen appetites of our minds and souls.
I know Christmas isn’t for everyone, and I don’t just mean that in the religious sense, but I really love it. I love sharing the occasion with friends and family. I love the indulgence in warming food and drink. I love the general inundation of good will and cheer. I love the over-supply of sweets and treats. Overall, I love the respite it offers at the end of the year, the permission that we bestow upon ourselves to unashamedly prioritise the people we love and the life that we have. We come together, we are close, and even though we know there are more dark days ahead, knowing each day will be a little brighter, our reassurance is secure.
Don’t wait to be asked – reach out! Make contact. Connect.