I often get the impression, when meeting someone very different from me, of stepping into an alternate universe. The backdrop is the same – everyone still uses Google and knows what year it is. The layout of the grocery store doesn’t change depending on who walks in the door. But sharing a conversation is like peering into a world whose details are bizarrely unfamiliar.
We glimpse these parallel worlds in the ways that they’re written onto our bodies. I know who laughs by the lines in his face. I read a video game addict (or a rock climber) in someone’s shoulder posture (sometimes only the tan tells them apart). Occasionally, we connect beyond a glance and discover a life very different from our own.
When I was younger, I was offered a job as a personal trainer with a woman who ran a gym from her home. She was a competitive bodybuilder – photos of her tanned figure, mid-flex in competition, were hung up on a wall. “How much do you think I weighed?” she enthusiastically asked me when I looked at the pictures. 135? “No, 120,” she said, this the proudest win.
Hitchhiking in southern BC one summer, I caught a ride from a European man driving a jeep, top down. I asked him about himself and one of the first things he told me was that he was part of inventing the JPEG. Then Rage Against the Machine came up on his playlist and he blasted it for the rest of the ride.
The way we spend our hours is what differentiates our paths the most. We become experts in tiny pockets of knowledge that include comparatively few other connoisseurs – bread baking, after-market car parts, dog-breeding. The contour lines we imagine on the edges of our world take rigid form as our ways of spending our hours take on a consistency over the years. It’s easy to forget the multitudes of lives lived.
Our personal stories and niches of mastery have become so unique, so much about us as individuals, that it can become hard to connect with others. Small talk prevails. Our interests are funnelled into specifics that too rarely overlap. We bore each other when time spent catching another’s story can mean time spent away from our own.
Sometimes I like to challenge myself to see everyone around me as a kindred spirit, simply for being alive at this same point in history at the same time. It makes the dread of awkward or unfulfilling conversation vanish, and a natural urge to connect arises. Suddenly there is everything to talk about.
I’ve noticed that with my own generation (millennials), one of the most distinguishing values to emerge is the idea that we must be purposeful with how we spend our hours. That often means having a life purpose. What that is or who it serves floats out there like a challenge to uncover as some type of personal truth. We perceive that the best way to uncover a personal truth is by intense inward focus.
My personal feeling is that should this deeper asking of what brings us a sense of purpose also bring us together, out of our highly individualized niches, then we’re onto something big.
The fact is, however, that many of us spend hours of inward focus diligently crafting our personal identity. We do this as seriously as previous generations committed themselves to creating financial stability or going to war. A life’s success is perhaps measured in the creating of a satisfying personal narrative. That this narrative relies on a shared worldview to have any relevance for someone else is another reason we find it hard to connect with others. We feel they don’t really see us when our contexts don’t align, when they don’t have reverence for our identity project.
Often we perceive it as being at cross-purposes with our own goals to step into another’s world, or life-story. This is particularly true when the goal of connecting is not our entertainment or enlightenment, but to spend some of our hours in care of another. In this space we give a type of attention that seems so generous it must be unconditional.
There is an aspect of real togetherness that indeed suggests unconditionality. We don’t always get to choose where and how we show up when we say we’re in it together with family, friends or others
Unconditionality in general is unpopular (at least from where I’m standing). It feels like an anchor that keeps us from exercising our right to create large spaces between ourselves and the people who piss us off. It demands a halt to the project of self-differentiation and, instead, an investment in something outside of ourselves, over which we have no control. It threatens to leave us without a narrative because the story ceases to be about us.
And yet, right here is meaning and purpose. The whole package, in fact. It all starts and finishes outside of ourselves.
I recently had a moving experience of togetherness when people in both my closer and larger circles came to visit me at home as I was recovering from a collarbone fracture and subsequent surgery. Each person who walked through the door had to step out of the momentum of their individual narrative in order to spend time with me. Simply the gift of them making that shift was enough to change the entire course of my day, and left me very touched!
I hadn’t realized before how many people were in it together with me until they showed up. I had still been living in a narrative of individuality and assumed others were doing the same. I’m embarrassed to say that I probably wouldn’t have visited everyone had the roles been reversed, largely from assuming that they wouldn’t have wanted a mere acquaintance coming during that time of suffering. I now understand differently.
Each person brought something unique to share – compassion, food, or post-operative skills (which include humour). And some of them thanked me for letting them care for me. Their words were, “it’s a gift to get to help another person. Getting to share and give are gifts, so thank you for giving me the chance.”
It can also be a gift to crash your bike. I learned a lot about togetherness and what matters during those two weeks.