This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.
In response to the queries of persistent readers who have been awaiting a new column since late June, I thank you for your notice and offer this little essay in response. In case you’ve ever wondered, the English word essay comes from the French word essayer, meaning “to try.” An essay represents an effort to formulate and communicate ideas. An essay, therefore, is a writer’s attempt to use language to forge a connection with a reader.
Overly optimistic about the launch date of my new Inside Out Journal weblog, I penned a column on the origins of culture and creativity, pleased by the compatibility of topic and occasion. It’s all ready to go, but alas, my designer, the brilliant Orlando Vidali (I recommend him highly), and I have a bit more work to do before the unveiling.
So, in an effort to stay connected, I offer these musings about, well, staying connected. Meanwhile, stay tuned. Inside Out will contain a neatly categorized archive of all my past columns along with new ones.
Sometime in between dinner and dessert last Thanksgiving, the middle son of one of my oldest friends got me signed up on Facebook. Pulsating quietly on the desk behind the fully expanded dining table, the computer beckoned, and as Zach had nothing else to do during the interim ten minutes, he quickly cobbled together my home page. I finished up later.
Tentative about risking excessive transparency and exposure, I was initially reticent. A rather private person, I’m not prone to gossip, and mindless gibbering renders me nearly comatose. But within two months, I had found or been found by two college friends, women I’d been looking for intermittently for several decades. Long lost but not completely forgotten high school friends are still turning up. Amazing.
What began as a social enterprise for computer-reliant kids has exploded in scope to embrace persons of all ages for the simple reason that it is extremely seductive to see who and what is out there. The older you are, the more compelling it is.
Not that it hasn’t posed some novel clinical and privacy challenges for me as a psychoanalyst. Some of my patients also use Facebook, and some of my personal friends are patients of colleagues who are on Facebook – you see where this could go – but privacy issues aside and all things considered, it’s been great fun.
Once the novelty wore off, and I quickly tired of the relentless onslaught of daily minutiae, I began to analyze the implications of these chirpy interactions more deeply. Of course we’re all busy, overworked and too tired or broke to go anywhere, blah-de-blah, but something much more profound was transpiring on the wire (or wireless).
So, late one evening not too long ago, slumped wearily at my desk and longing to repair to the couch with some hot tea and a non-analytic book, I succumbed to a diversionary Facebook impulse and logged on. Click. Scanning the usual assortment of daily announcements and conversational tidbits, I saw nothing that really demanded attention. So-and-so was tagged. Photos were posted. Yeah, yeah…I’m tired. Scrolling down the newsfeed, filled with the ephemera of summer, I suddenly experienced an upwelling of tender pathos.
I began to read each comment slowly and conversationally, imagining each remark spoken aloud. I began to hear the voices of people I knew, some for over fifty years. I heard the hearty voices of my parents’ friends, the youthful voices of my friends’ children and the familiar voices of my peers, a whispering susurrus that grew in intensity until it reverberated like sacred music.
We’re planning a film festival. I’m getting married. Meet my new baby, my first grandchild, my new wife. We’re in Tanzania now. In London. In Croatia for the summer. In school. In love. Here we are at the beach. The mountains. The zoo. Look, I’m on the far right. In the middle. There, I’m on the left. Wasn’t she was the flower girl? Yes, in my mother’s backyard. Must be in her 60’s now.
As I listened carefully to each snippet, major themes emerged like melodies, tunes harmonizing with the historical epochs that formed each person’s character. Just above a witty quip posted by a friend’s son, some au courant reference I didn’t understand at all, I read a wispy reminiscence about a wedding that had transpired sixty years ago in a garden. Facebook sounds. I was stunned by the evocative poignancy of all these simple posts, so many personal offerings intended only to evoke a human response.
Documenting the human experience
They call out for recognition the way a child calls for her mother. Think of me, remember me, hold me in mind. I miss you. Please don’t forget me. I remember you from high school. From college. From camp. From the old neighborhood. I’ve not forgotten. Do you remember me? Whatever happened to her, to him, to them? Oh, I’m so sorry, I hadn’t known. When? You look beautiful! I’d know you anywhere. You’ve hardly changed. Yes, let’s get together soon.
While these posts may lack the eloquence of traditional correspondence, they serve the same basic function. They represent a longing for affiliation and acknowledgment, a yearning for connection and connectedness. Instead of the front porch or country club, we now rely on technological advances and social networks to narrow the widening crevices in time and space that separate us. They give us a place to tell our stories, share our day. They give us a space in which to recount and ascribe meaning to our human experience.
Injustice sucks. Become a friend of interpretive dance. Save the Wales. Save the environment. Change the world.
Exploring the human experience
Psychoanalysis recognizes the importance of delving fully into the human experience. The early Object Relations theorist, Ronald Fairbairn, conjectured that we are “object seeking,” meaning that we are born seeking interrelatedness and connection with other people (not actual objects like toasters or IPods).
While Freud defined human development in psychosexual terms, beginning with the oral phase of a nursing infant and ending with mature genital sexuality, Fairbairn reconfigured developmental theory and suggested something quite novel.
He suggested that orality signified the only way a baby could connect to her mother; she could grasp a breast in her mouth as she was enveloped in her mother’s arms. While this may be sensually pleasant, and if it weren’t infants would not survive, Fairbairn emphasized connection, not eroticism.
We are born seeking connection. In his book of sentimental poems, Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Life longs for itself.” While this yearning can be gratified by gaze, imagery and touch, our first post-natal modes of communication, we need something more. We need language. We need words.
Increasing independence from mother is heady stuff for a baby. However, separation from the safety of intense physical intimacy with the very flesh that created and nurtured us for nine months informs us that we are alone. The potential loneliness of individuation penetrates deeply and poses significant developmental challenges that require creative solutions.
The gift of symbolic language
The capacity to employ symbols emerges just as a baby begins to acquire language. Words used to represent attachment liberate a child from the necessity of sustaining an actual physical attachment. Words permit her to maintain a vital connection to mom without being physically fused.
Instead of simply clinging or crying, a child can express herself and be understood. I love you. I need you. I want you. And mom can respond. I love you, too. The child begins to experience relationships based upon mutuality and reciprocity. Her world expands along with her vocabulary.
As she achieves a stable awareness of herself as a unique individual having an ongoing existence in time, she begins to create her own narrative, the story of her life. She links her human experience with those of others.
Relationships bridge our lives. They enable us to define ourselves while relieving the terror of abject isolation. We form relationships to experience intimate attachments while simultaneously maintaining our own subjective separateness.
In concert with one another, we find joyous humanity. Language makes it possible for us to know one another deeply. As we mature within those relationships, so does our awareness of mortality. Our very lives are finite.
We will eventually pass into the generations and, unless we are Proust or Shakespeare or Alexander the Great, will leave only a subtle but unmistakable ripple across the fluid surface of history. I’m still here. Where are you?
Each Facebook interaction, a few scant words typed on a virtual page, has the power to bind us together emotionally, even as the tendrils that bound us physically may have begun to tear. And eventually, they will all tear.
After my father died, what I came to miss as much as his corporeal presence, was the consciousness he’d amassed over the course of his lifetime, the archives of his unique human experience. Each shared moment in our relationship deposited some of that within me, accessible whenever I bring him to mind.
As I’ve written previously and will again, there is no time in the unconscious. We locate ourselves wherever our minds take us. We can revisit a quaint garden wedding in 1940 or the first day of kindergarten. We come into psychological being within a relational context. As an industrious species, we manage to devise ways to find each other despite monumental impediments.
Technology can be cold, remote and isolating, but if you listen to Facebook sounds, perhaps you’ll see how it can also entwine our far-flung lives. Even as the relational tendrils that bind us begin to yellow with time and loosen their secure grasp, we can activate their memories.
What are you doing today?
This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.