“Only connect! That was her whole sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” –E. M. Forster, Howard’s End 1910
Does technology connect or isolate us? How is well-being linked to a need to connect with one another? Does video conferencing software or social media meet that need? Forster intuited our future enchantment with technology, and when taken as a whole, a paradox emerges; technology makes us both isolated and interconnected.
The Covid-19 pandemic has managed to disrupt, derail, and literally destroy life for many–especially when viewed through a lens of socio-economic asymmetry. Our relationship with time, and space has become fragmented and unbalanced. In an insidious way, this pandemic’s havoc has burrowed into our personal time, and personal space. If time and space are essential to how we navigate, and interpret our world, then it is no surprise that the pandemic has affected not only our bodies, but also our minds, and wellbeing. The mandate to “shelter-in-place” manages to deliver a subtle message of protection and safety, but glosses over a stubborn sense of isolation. But here we are, all together.
So, enough of the doom and gloom already! Let’s focus attention on what we can do, and how to tap into our intrinsic capacities during Covid-19. In other words, how do we ‘connect the prose and passion?’ We might begin by connecting with ourselves. Take a few minutes each day to reflect on your present circumstances (no matter how dyer they may appear) and bring into relief all the things that make you genuinely grateful. The ancient Stoics employed the psychological tool of negative visualization for gaining insight. For example, although we may be instructed to shelter-in-place, at least most of us have a shelter. A homeless person may not be so lucky. This type of reframing is a powerful tool for exposing our misguided notions, and hubris. Reframing deconstructs habits of mind that are both primitive, and unproductive.
Get physical, not digital
And above all, get physical, not digital. If possible get out, and take a walk in your neighborhood, or drive someplace new. Walking engages all of your senses, which in turn, makes you a more sensible person. I recently conducted a walking experiment. I began to note my moods before and after a longish walk through our neighborhood’s paved roads, which are mostly rural roads, lined with fields, forestland; with the occasional passing car. I always feel refreshed afterwards with the reward of red cheeks, and tightening leg muscles. I then found a walking loop through a section of woods bordering a lively creek. After adding this wooded path as part of my routine walk, I noted a qualitative difference. Sorry, no data sets. But the overall effect was easily quantifiable. The loop added layers of experience: the sibilant pine whistling above, the sparkling light and sound of the nearby creek, a random flock of wild turkeys trudging ahead in newly fallen snow, the calligraphy of footprints left behind them, and also by the earlier impressions of deer and rabbit. This is the poetry of landscape unfolding. ‘Only connect!’
Think like a designer.
Designers love to work through problems by innovating them into obsolescence. However, you can’t always think your way out of a problem. It’s best that you engage it on a physical level. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and dig in. There’s this great saying, “If you can’t get out of it, get into it!” It’s simple. We’re all going through something. We all have worries. We all stress out over things out of our control. Sounding familiar? Sometimes we can’t get out of it, so we might as well make an effort, and get into it. This is the moment when reframing can kick start novel ways of looking at a problem. Designers are also consummate collaborators. Multiple viewpoints are essential when it comes to tackling any problem. In other words, don’t go it alone. Remember to connect! Ahh…but here’s the rub! How do we connect when we are compelled or even mandated to shelter-in-place?
Masks and six-foot social distancing might have been fine when it was warm outside, but what do we do now in the middle of winter? How about simply extending the length of your next phone conversation? Meaningful connections are meaningful because they ask more of your time, not less. This is where meaning and mindfulness intersect. A sustained conversation draws us into a collaborative space.
There is this digital fallout that journalist, Brigid Schulte has coined as, “time confetti.” Think about how text messages, or tweets are strung together in tiny bits, and how often these tiny bits demand your attention. Now, think about how it makes you feel when these “bits” of correspondence punctate the entire day–your waking life lost to unproductive multitasking. “BING… BING… BING…” Time confetti seduces us with fragmentation dressed up as efficiency. Consider throwing some of that time confetti out the window, and watch what happens. ‘Live in fragments no longer.’
Do something good for someone else
Looking for that dopamine hit, or a way to hack into that bout of self-loathing? Try a random act of kindness. The science supports that an act of doing something good for another person bumps up your happiness index. Let someone pass in front of you at the check out. Done. Call a distant relative and have that longer conversation. Done. The opportunities are right in front of you, if you are willing to look up from that palmed device. Random or otherwise, these acts open us directly to the social landscape, in which we all live, work, play, struggle, and dream. Connect and you ‘will be exalted.’