Bonding – a Whole Approach to Life

I recently read this beautiful essay on how human connection – not sobriety – is the remedy for addiction. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but if you aren’t going to, I’ll try to snapshot the key points that have sparked my thinking here:

The author, Johann Hari, explains two separate addiction experiments done with rats, the long and short of which is that the rats who were kept in isolated, un-stimulating environments were exceptionally prone to drug addiction, but those who lived in ‘Rat Park,’ a healthy, happy environment for rats, were not. Moreover, once rats who had been conditioned to addiction in the isolated cages were allowed to live in Rat Park (“a lush cage” with “colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends”), they quickly returned to a life free of drug use. He goes on to make comparisons to human examples of Vietnam-war veterans and those prescribed heavily-addictive drugs in hospital settings, which are quite interesting.

But my thought-train here has really nothing to do with addiction per se, or with rats, or with the ethics of animal experimentation. Rather, one of Hari’s passages struck me particularly:

“Human beings are bonding animals. We need to connect and love. […] But we have created an environment and a culture that cut us off from connection, or offer only the parody of it offered by the Internet.”

His argument is about addiction as a clinical condition, but I think his assessment of human beings is something we can all reflect on and learn from.

While not in as dire circumstances as many people, there are many of us living what appear on the surface, or from the outside, to be ‘full’ and ‘happy’ lives… or at least what ‘should’ be so. In truth, many of us live in self-constructed cages of isolation. Even if we’re not facing depression or constant physical isolation, we’re often more isolated than we would like to be. Why is that, especially if we are lucky enough to in fact have the means, the people nearby, and the opportunities, to be more connected, more bonded with our village?

Too often it seems we feel we don’t have the time to connect with our people, our friends and family; this is the most common cause I hear. But what are we doing instead? The usual culprits seem to be working, getting chores done, driving around to do errands, with the awful end result that when one does have some ‘free’ time, it needs to be ‘me’ time (read: a chance to collapse from exhaustion, to sleep or zombify in front of a screen).

But I think in these cases we need to question the importance of the things we’re using our time for instead of connecting – because at the end of the day, we are choosing to do so, and only by acknowledging our own agency can we start to either change it or become okay with it.

Do our living spaces really need to be tidy in order to enjoy our home with those we love? Does our time need to be ‘free’ of obligations or to-do lists before we can engage with our people? Or would it be better if we did more things communally – buying food, cooking, folding laundry – embracing that we’re all going through this together, rather than feeling we need to ‘get our shit together’ before we can enjoy one another’s company? Do we really need to ‘unwind’ at the end of a long day by scrolling through a social media feed that only gives us that ‘parody’ of bonding? We could instead be actually connecting with the people and activities that bring us joy, or indulging in that ‘me’ time by having a bath, walking outside, or doing an activity that engages our bodies and minds rather than just collapsing from exhaustion, often in front of a screen?

We have created a culture, as Hari says, “that cuts us off from connection.” The expectation is that we will all live in our own little kingdoms, whatever your particular box of living space looks like, and that our first responsibility is to keep our own kingdom in order. If we are good at keeping this order – bringing in the right amount of money for our lifestyle, tidying and cleaning, having the ‘right’ groceries in our cupboards with our near-future meal plans settled, having at least some plans in the works for how we’ll change our kingdom/life, and maintaining whatever image we’ve created of our lives in our online worlds – then we can occasionally, when it’s a ‘good’ time, invite others into our kingdom to enjoy the space we’ve cultivated, or allow ourselves some time away from our boxes to enjoy someone else’s kingdom… provided they have kept their kingdom in order, of course.

Perhaps we need to start living with each other, instead of alongside one other with the occasional meeting in the same space.

The people we wish we bonded more with might live in the same space as us, our spouses or children; they may live down the street or across town or across the country or the world, and technology may be a necessary tool for allowing us to simulate face-to-face interactions with some of them. We may wish to bond more with ourselves, to connect with our interests, and hobbies, those experiences that allow us to feel more alive, more engaged and joyful.

The point is not how we connect but whether the connection, the bonding, is a real bond or a parody. Even more so, the point is accepting our own agency (should we be so fortunate as to have some, as there are many in the world who truly don’t), so that when we feel we’re living in a cage, we can look around and determine honestly if the bars are real, or if we’ve given them form and weight with our own perceptions.

“Bonding” in this broader sense doesn’t seem to be something that can be done or felt effectively if only allotted in rare, discrete blocks of time; such a model means there will also be set times of isolation, boredom, or loneliness. It would be idealistic to think all of life will be continuous bonding and connection, but it also seems sad and unnecessary to resign ourselves to a life plan where bonding and connection are rare ‘treats’ if we’ve been ‘good.’ I’m not sure what the solution is, but I think it’s worth some serious consideration, and I hope some of you will leave your thoughtful comments below!

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