Living in Layers. Part VI. The Great Disconnect

Our quests for easier and more comfortable lives, for happiness, and for greater security have been leading to greater disconnects from ourselves, from each other, and from our natural world. Increasing reliance upon and use of various technologies, although beneficial in many ways, is leading to greater separation. Early specialization in schooling, work, science, and so forth increases our tendencies toward isolation, fragmentation, and solidification of self and other.

I usually write in the mornings, occupying my “reserved” seat at the coffee shop. But, occasionally I return in the afternoons. The crowds are different. Mornings are students, professors, and business people all of whom engage in chit-chat, work, business meetings, or even classes. In the afternoons, the multi-color haired, tattooed, and pierced disenfranchised fringe descends to talk, play, and smoke at the outdoor tables. Other patrons actively avoid contact and walk hurriedly by them and into the coffee shop. Just like teachers fearing children, the older patrons react with sublimated fear. As with the hippies of the 60’s and 70’s and those of the earlier beat generation, the people in the current “fringe” come together in an attempt to experience a sense of belonging and trust outside of the hierarchy. Their disconnect with the societal hierarchies have led them to the formation of a separate group identity. In search of themselves, they quest for comfort and an identity, while reacting against the society in which they live.

However, just as in the rest of society, there is a fundamental disconnect with one’s self. But, how can anyone be disconnected from one’s self? An interesting question, and one that seems to lie at the core of our personal and social problems. The common phrase about the hippy generation was some variation of “oh, he’s off at a commune searching for himself.” But the search was mostly fruitless. As discussed earlier, we create a layered sense of self – one that is constructed of illusory notions of who were are. We suppress emotions, put on facades, indulge in our own self-consciousness or self-centeredness, or fill in our time with entertainment and activity.

In relating to others, we engage in the same strategies of push, pull, and avoid (recall the earlier discussion of the three poisons). While sitting outside the coffee shop a number of years ago, a Navajo man comes up to me and starts a conversation. I knew where the conversation was leading before it began, when we first made eye contact as he approached. I could feel myself react: “I don’t want to engage with him. I don’t want to give him money….” However, I took a deep breath and reminded myself, much against my gut reaction, that he was a human being and that I needed to make contact and be direct. As is typical of the few societally disenfranchised Navajo people, they still attempt to hold their heritage in high regard. He approaches and shakes my hand, then starts talking about his situation. He’s been here in town and is trying to get back to his family on the Reservation. He talks on about his personal and cultural philosophy of “living in beauty” (the core idea of the Navajo people). I listen, then say that I will give him a couple of dollars, if he promises not to spend it on alcohol, while fully knowing that if that is what he is going to do, it’s out of my control. He says, “no, no, I have to get a bus.” We talk on more interactively, as I try to focus on his basic good qualities and culture, then give him two dollars. He walks off promising to pray for me. Maybe he caught a bus or maybe he bought alcohol, but at least we made contact as human being to human being.

We have compounded our disconnect to others over the past several centuries and especially in the last couple of decades with the introduction of new technologies. Early explorers traversed the oceans and made contact with others. However, the solidity of these explorers’ notions of self and culture made real contact almost impossible. Other peoples and cultures were viewed through the judgmental lenses of European culture. Conflicting assumptions about life and living resulted in seeing “the others” as uncivilized savages, with the all too often slaughter or enslaving of such peoples. As cars and then airplanes were introduced, we were offered further opportunities to make contact with people from across the country and around the world. However, these opportunities were, in large part, missed, as well as misused.

As a young child in the 1950’s, I toured much of the eastern United States with my parents during summer vacations. On one occasion, we were driving through the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, when we stopped at a tourist location. An old American Indian man dressed as a chief was standing by a shop and for a small fee I had my picture taken with him. Surely, he was not a chief, but he was an object of curiosity for the white tourists passing by. We objectified him with a total disconnect to his heritage, values, beliefs, and contemporary concerns. Although we move around the country and world with great ease, we miss opportunities to connect with the people with whom we come into contact. Even driving around town in our cars, we tend to see other cars and their drivers as impersonal objects. We yell at cars and their drivers, and, in some extreme instances, take violent action against them. Cars and trucks pushing others off the road and shootings from one car into another have been on the increase. We are losing our connections to one another with the help of mobile steel fortresses.

With the introduction of personal computers and the internet, we have had additional opportunities to make contact. However, in the jargon of this new context, we tend to “flame” at others. On one particular email list, I have watched as two individuals fire angry insults back and forth at each other. Neither knew the other, but I knew both. I sat at my computer somewhat incredulous, thinking that if they actually met, they would be instant friends.

The business use of computers has increased such disconnects with all of us. When businesses contact us to solicit our business, they are incredibly friendly, but never again. Once we are on the hook with their business, humanity disappears and we slip to the bottom rung of the hierarchy. Over and over again, we encounter instances where we go to the business and say something like, “well, when you were signing me up for your business, you said that this service was going to cost [a specific amount].” The response always goes something like “well, we’re sorry, but our policy states….” No matter how much you try to explain the problem, the people at the business end just keep repeating the same statement, as if you never heard it before. Phone companies, cable TV companies, rental car companies, banks, car dealerships, hotels, airlines, … take no responsibility for their actions in relation to customers. Even small hometown businesses have lost contact with their customers and employees. Whatever happened to a sense of integrity? The bottom line, rather than the customer, takes precedence. Any strategy that furthers the acquisition of power and money is justified in the eyes of those who pursue such acquisitions.

Wrapped up in our own story-lines and agendas, we, our institutions, and our governments proceed day after day in a state of disconnect with others. At all levels, from personal to social and institutional to societal and global, we “spin” our worlds and communications. With all of the “spin,” we create disconnects at all levels of being. When we “spin” ourselves or political agendas, we create illusory layers and views of situations with little or no connection to what is really happening. Our spins can be in the form of material goods, homes, tattoos and hairdos, clothing, the way we walk, what we say, and how we say it. And, at completely personal levels, we spin ourselves to ourselves with rationales and justifications for what we do and say and for who we think we are. As with the spin cycle of washing machines that drain the last vestiges of dirt and water, our psychological and social spin cycles drain anything that might tarnish the illusory view we wish to communicate to ourselves or others.

About Jeff Bloom

I'm a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.
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