Why Getting Together Is So Hard To Do
(Approximately an 8 to 10 minute read for the average reader)
Did we lose more than we gained, when we advanced from "social mammal," to "modern individual"?
Earlier in my life I didn't see the point of sitting around chatting. I was in a hurry. I had a lot of urgent work to do, and not enough time to do it.
Important things, like connecting with each other just for the sake of it, don't feel urgent. They hover quietly in the background.
Sometimes those important things hover, unattended, until we get to a point in our lives where we look back and wish we had done more socializing, and less striving. More giving and connecting, and less acquiring and directing.
Motherhood has taught me how much people need each other.
A while ago I started going with my kids to help at a community garden on a Tuesday morning.
The kids participated more in the gardening than they do at home, and when they were tired of working there were other children there to play with.
I enjoyed learning and gaining inspiration for our own garden projects, and connecting with like-minded people.
I thought I’d make it a regular Tuesday morning thing.
But then circus class for the kids started up on a Tuesday afternoon. Gardening in the morning was an hour and twenty minutes round trip in one direction; circus class in the afternoon was an hour and a half in the other direction.
Nearly 3 hours on the road in two different directions on one day was too much. I talked the kids into dropping gardening except for during school holidays, when circus class is not on.
But Tuesday is still one of my favorite days of the week – because at circus class I get to chat to other home-schooling mothers, while the kids are happy and busy.
Growing up in a nuclear family
It’s only the degree of isolation that differs.
I grew up in a very insular family, even by nuclear family standards.
We had no extended family nearby, and I almost never saw my parents socializing.
We and everyone else I knew lived in separate suburban houses with a quarter acre block carefully landscaped for maximum privacy.
As a child I went to a small, friendly school, but then I went to a larger high school outside our local area, where I didn’t know anybody. I found myself unable to make friends, and I spent my high-school years alone.
I left home as a teen and didn’t return except for brief visits.
In my twenties and thirties, I traveled and met wonderful people all over the world, but I didn’t develop friendships outside of my profession. I didn’t know how. And I didn’t know, at that stage in my life, that it was important to learn how.
When at nearly 40 years of age I was back in Australia preparing for the birth of my first child, a lovely friendly woman I met said to me, “We’ll have to get together sometime soon…” She meant socially, to share a meal and chat.
I clearly remember thinking, “Why?”
I truly couldn't see a reason for just “getting together.” To do what? Just chat? What a waste of time!
Ok, so maybe my story is a little extreme. But I’m pretty sure that a lot of other people would place themselves somewhere on a continuum of similar social isolation.
It’s only the degree of isolation that differs.
Togetherness is seen as "weird"
We compensate for our lack of connection and intimacy by striving to own the nicest home, the shiniest possessions, the best qualifications.
As I said in “An Illusion of Independence,” our culture places a high value on independence and individualism.
Modern education pressures children to stop playing and collaborating, so they can get on with the important work of competing for grades that define them as “more than” or “less than” someone with a different grade.
We stick to our separate houses, with locks on the doors, and we work hard to own those houses independently.
Our individual consumption and entertainment choices become part of our individual identity.
An underlying lack of satisfaction in our relationships is glossed over by means of being the one with the nicest home, the shiniest and biggest possessions, or the most prestigious qualifications.
Our nuclear families are considered successful if the parents stay together. Any togetherness beyond that is seen as "weird."
That parents are stretched to the point of exhaustion between earning enough to pay the bills, caring for children, and meeting other obligations, is a challenge we are all aware of.1 But nobody I talk to knows how to solve it.
Stuck in separateness
Somewhere along the way from decision making by consensus to "Because I said so," we've lost more than we gained.
I love technology and individual empowerment as much as the next person, but I think something's gone wrong with the way we're using them.
Somewhere between clusters of families gathered around a central fireplace, and rows of privately owned modern dwellings, each connected to social media but facing away from their neighbors, something went wrong.
We've transitioned from a culture of tolerance, acceptance and enjoyment2 to one of judgement, criticism and endless striving (or apathy, when the striving gets too much).
Our ancestors made decisions by consensus, with lengthy discussions in which everyone had a say.3 We, in contrast, live within a top down hierarchy characterized by “Right now this minute,” “Because I said so,” and “Whether you like it or not."
Not surprisingly, along the way we've lost the ability to live harmoniously together.
And now we’re stuck, in various ways and for various reasons, in the separateness of the lifestyles we’ve created.
The illusion of separation
In his introduction to “The Ascent of Humanity,” Charles Eisenstein writes:
"In … mastering nature with technology, and mastering human nature with culture, we [have established] a separate human realm. [We] think of this separation as an ascent in which we have risen above our animal origins.
... [This] separation [has] created the world we know today. Our intuitions that life and the world are meant to be more reflect the illusoriness of that separation."
Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity, Introduction
The bold emphasis is mine. This powerful illusion of separation that Eisenstein refers to is at the root of every construct and every institution that makes up our modern world. It is how we see the world, and it is who and what we believe we are.
Politics, food production and all our other interactions with the environment, medicine, education, economics, religion, law, social justice, and more – all are founded on a mechanistic, reductionist ideology that says people are separate entities.
The follow on assumptions are that we don't need each other, and we don't need to worry about the consequences of our actions on each other or on the surrounding web of life.
A lonely culture
"Advancing,” from social mammals whose lives depended on cooperation and collaboration, to individuals who profit at each other’s expense, we left behind the skills and behaviors that enabled us to live together.
Lots of people I talk to agree that we live in a lonely culture. That, even if their own needs for connection are met, they know of a lonely person or a struggling family who could do with more support and companionship.
Lots of parents I talk to (and me too) are exhausted from running on a treadmill made up of responsibilities that no couple or single human being should have to meet on their own.
Why don’t we just move closer together, share housing, share childcare, cook together and eat together, share the car and the washing machine, reduce our debt, spend more time socializing and less time working?
People do try solutions like this, in endless variations on co-housing, intentional communities, Eco-villages…
But recently I read that starting up any kind of co-living arrangement is like starting up a new business: the majority won’t be around for very long. Why?
I think the simple answer is that we’ve been operating on the separateness assumption for so long that we’ve forgotten how to co-exist. We no longer feel able to live close to one another, constantly.
To go on a camping trip together is one thing, but full time, with no respite and no escape? That would be terrifying. I might lose my identity, my self, my independence.
To have no “mine.” Not my space or my house or my washing machine, but "our" washing machine, or "the" washing machine.
To see each other's wants, whims and needs as equally important to our own, is scary for most of us.
To see each other person as equal to, and as important as, I am. Their wants, whims and needs, as important as mine. That’s scary to most of us.
When we walked away from an egalitarian lifestyle around the communal campfire, we “advanced,” from being social mammals whose lives depended on cooperation and collaboration.
We became individuals who profit at each other’s expense, and in doing so we left behind the skills and behaviors that enabled us to live together.
Now, we live in separate worlds and we feel that we must work and compete for everything we have. Because more for you would mean less for me, I work at keeping what I have, guarding it, hoarding it, and grabbing for more when I can.
More for you would be less for me
We modern humans see ourselves not in terms of "I am because we are," (to borrow from the African term) but as "I am."
Each of us is a separate self, and this aspect of our nature has become so prominent in our minds that we now tend to see ourselves as only a separate self.
About this "self," Eisenstein goes on to say:
“It is a self conditionally dependent on, but fundamentally separate from, the Other: from nature and other people. Seeing ourselves as discrete and separate beings, we naturally seek to manipulate the not-self to our best advantage.”
Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity, Introduction
Again, the bold emphasis on the last sentence is mine. Right there, I think, lies one of the key reasons why we struggle when we try to get back together on anything more than a superficial level.
Very deep inside any human who has been immersed in this culture of separation, individualism and independence, is the idea that more for you would have to mean less for me.
From measurable things like scoring the top marks at school or sports, or the corner office at work, to difficult-to-define things like control, dignity, respect, or attention… anything I gave you more of would mean less of that thing for me.
Seen through this lens, it’s no wonder that when we have worked our behinds off to secure a home, for example, we feel more inclined to defend our hard-earned space, than to share it.
Important, but not urgent
It’s up to us to place the important things where we’ll trip over them and be reminded.
Now that I have children and I see clearly how I want their childhoods to be different than mine was, I want more community in my life.
Now that I have recognized the sting of loneliness for what it is (rather than experiencing it as a shoved down, unidentified numbness) I want more community in my life.
Connection with other people, I’ve come to realize, is important but not urgent .
Urgent things catch and hold our attention. For example, if we don’t feed them, the kids howl; if we don’t fork over, the landlord or the bank will evict us.
But important things require us to actively direct our attention to them, to prioritize them, to find ways to place them where we’ll trip over them and be reminded.
"Go oft to the house of thy friend, for weeds choke the unused path.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
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Footnotes to Getting Together
- This article says it much better than I can.
- I'm referring to hunter-gatherer societies, "humanity's first and most successful adaptation, occupying at least 90 percent of human history."
- "During the twentieth century, anthropologists studied dozens of different hunter-gatherer societies. In each, the dominant cultural ethos emphasized individual autonomy, non-directive child-rearing methods, nonviolence, sharing, cooperation, and consensual decision-making." Adapted from How Hunter-Gatherers Maintained Their Egalitarian Ways by John Gray, Ph.D.