Why My Drive for Individualism Meant That I Was Losing Connection
Last month, I travelled to Lebanon after my elderly father was rushed to hospital. This time around, I didn’t stay in Beirut but instead at his house in a small town, just outside Tyre.
Whether it was the internet that was so sporadic, the cold rainy February weather, or how the big old house gave us with many problems, my spoilt self was left annoyed and frustrated.
And yet, in such a stressful time, I was at peace, felt content and at ease with myself. Of course, being around my siblings and father was a tremendous boon. But also, there was something about the energy and the simplicity of the people of this town, that rubbed off on me.
There was a sense of connection I rarely felt before. Whenever I was at the supermarket, pharmacy or any shop, people were smiling, talkative and bonding.
I had to remind myself that the Lebanese people were suffering through the worst economic crisis of their modern history. So many had lost their livelihoods, saw most of their life savings wiped out and now lived on a tenth on what they earned previously.
Nevertheless, they were positive, caring, and seemed sincerely happy.
True, their mannerisms in driving, ignoring anyone (esp. me) in queues and having the speaker on all the time when using their phones drove me mad, but they were always genuine and kind.
Perhaps, it was what Brene Brown alluded to when she defined connection:
“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
The barber who cut my hair was friendly and helped me get to a place I had difficulty finding. The gym owner I joined was so laid back that he gave me the keys to open if I came in early, as is my want.
Often after I finished my gym session, I’d stop to buy a ‘Knefe’ sandwich (a local sweet breakfast delicacy) and eat it while standing outside the shop with drivers, labourers, and others. There would be some small talk but primarily smiles and laughter. Everyone seemed to connect in some magical way.
That’s when it hit me hard. I’ve chased productivity, achievement, and sophistication all my life, yet I’ve never given connection or community the priority it deserves. I didn’t think I had to work at it, thinking that it would just happen.
I had designed my life around solitude and reflection to write in my spare time. I was also content with a small group of friends and family. However, this small group was fast dwindling as we reached midlife and had started moving on to differing lives.
Now I know that if I don’t put connection at the top of my priorities, I’d be building a life that would lead to loneliness, which in turn would lead to depression.
In a passage appearing in the Pali Canon, one of the oldest remaining Buddhist texts, the Buddha’s loyal attendant, Ananda, approaches the Buddha and asks, “Venerable sir, this is half of the spiritual life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.” The Buddha replies enthusiastically yet sternly: “Not so, Ananda! Not so! This is the entire spiritual life, that is good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.”
Why have I not taken connection seriously?
True, the internet and social media have affected us all, giving us an illusion that we connect when it’s doing the absolute opposite.
However, I think it all started way before the internet when we became fascinated by individualism. From the basic concept of self-reliance to the more radical Ayn Rand’s ‘Objectivism’ philosophy, striving and going alone became the modern man’s way of being.
Today, I see how wrong this individualistic thinking is and was left in awe by the words of French sociologist Émile Durkheim who is credited for being one of the co-founders of sociology.
In his 1897 ground-breaking work, Suicide, he observed that:
“Society cannot disintegrate without the individual detaching himself from social life, without his own goals becoming preponderant over those of the community, in a word without his personality tending to surmount the collective personality. The more weakened the groups to which he belongs, the less he depends on them, the more he consequently depends only on himself and recognizes no other rules of conduct than what are founded on his private interests.”
How can we get more connected?
1.Create a ‘Digital Detox’ Plan
Undoubtedly, our phones, iPads and laptops are becoming obstacles to connecting with ourselves and the community. When occupied digitally, we lose our ability to interact and listen to each other as texting limits thoughtful discussion.
We can’t truly hear each other’s stories as a few lines of text hardly compares to seeing and listening to the other person in front of us.
How can we engage and enjoy our relationships when a family dinner in a restaurant turns into an occasion where all members are on their phones and texting away?
Perhaps, you can start by trying to master the use of your phone. Try putting it out of sight when having dinner, two hours before sleep and two hours after rising in the morning.
2)Get involved with a meaningful group
When we connect with people who share the same interests, activities and values, we become happier and feel more connected.
If you are religious, start going to church, mosque or temple. If you like books, then create a book club. If you want to run, join a runner’s club.
I’m restarting an initiative, Socrates Café, that I created before Covid, when a small group of us would meet to discuss deep topics such as; do we have free will?
3)Find your community (or Town)
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “”If you consort with someone covered in dirt you can hardly avoid getting a little grimy yourself.”
People around us, our environment, and the society we live in have a much more significant impact than we are willing to accept. Our family and friends are our balance, the bedrock of our lives, but sometimes we don’t think on the same wavelength.
However, with the speed of how everything moves in our modern world, we must choose how and who we spend our valuable time with wisely.
If a family member is negative and brings you down, you can love them from afar, but you don’t need to spend all your time with them.
Also, the country, city, and neighbourhood that you choose to live in has a great impact on the quality of your life.The deep sense of community I felt during the month I stayed in that small town has remained ingrained in my heart.
Now, I have vowed not to take connection for granted anymore. Instead, I’m building small steps so that in the near future, I’d be living in the right place, connected and content with all the right people around me.
Connection makes our hearts smile. It far exceeds the dopamine hits of the mind when we pursue individualism and achievement.