I wanted to share some thoughts that have been maturing in me for a while. It all started years ago with an excellent video about addiction based on Jonathan Hari’s bestselling book. Hari’s argument is that the opposite of addiction is connection. Once meaningful connections are in place, people thrive and do well, they show resilience and strength.
As a social anthropologist I find this perspective really interesting. Anthropological research has shown again and again that things we perceive to be truths and facts are not – and I wonder if it is the same with addiction. But it wasn’t addiction I wanted to think with you about, it was connection. Once we start thinking about the meaning of connection, its power and implications, things become really interesting.
Oftentimes we use the term ‘attention’ when I think ‘connection’ would be both more appropriate and insightful. In the case of people who self-harm, or attempt suicide, or engage in erratic behaviour there is a well-established narrative about attention. “She craved attention”, we say. “He only did it for attention”. “It was a cry for help. It was all about attention, really.” I think this is extremely unhelpful. Claiming that a person is primarily motivated by attention reduces them and their actions to shallow, unreflected and infantile beings. It adds shame and humiliation to already difficult processes. It reduces them in the eyes of the people around them, and their own too.
Sometimes people – and especially young people – lack the vocabulary and experience to describe their situation in words. They may not know how to talk about it, or if they will be listened to and taken seriously. one way of processing and releasing these emotions may be through self-harming. It may also be a way to attempt to connect with others.
If we turn our attention from the ‘attention’ narrative to the ‘connection’ narrative a few things become obvious. For one, judgement is removed. This makes it possible to talk and think about the person and their behaviour in different, non-judgmental ways. But if the root is lack of connection, the gaze turns to us, all of us, for responsibility. People who self-harm often have families and loved ones around them. Yet perhaps the deep and meaningful connections are weak, or perhaps there are areas they don’t extend to, or perhaps they extend to few people. It is an uncomfortable thought that we are dysfunctional families, that our relationships are not always nourishing and nurturing. Yet this is the thought that we need to hold in order to take responsibility for a possible lack of connection. We need to ask ourselves as family members, friends, neighbours if we have truly been reaching out to the people around us. If we’ve been truly open enough, as human beings, if we’re truly given and truly received. Because in order for someone to connect there needs to be people to connect with.
So far I haven’t mentioned mental health at all. Mental health is something that concerns us all, and mental health problems may make it more difficult to make connections. All of us experience waxing and waning of our mental health, just as we do with our physical health, and some people struggle more than others. However mental health does not affect whether or not connections are necessary.
We are social animals, and need reciprocity in our lives. We need to see and be seen. We need to be important to someone, and we need people who are important to us. We need a tribe. We need people who believe in us and who trust us and we need someone to believe in and to trust. We need connections.
So here’s my thought for the day: what if we – you and I – tried to be a better friend and neighbour today? Tried to see one more person? Tried to be open to giving and receiving profound connections with people? My interest here is that I believe that we must do what we can, every day, to change the world for the better. It’s our responsibility. We can all affect little things that touches the lives or the people around us. We know from history that small actions taken by individuals can have profound impacts, so we must do what we can. Today, let’s let that be connections.