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David C. Cook; New edition (October 1, 2009)
Jesse Rice is a writer and musician and served for eight years as the Contemporary Worship Arts Director at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, a large and thriving congregation in the heart of Silicon Valley. Jesse has a Master’s in Counseling Psychology and is an authority on the search for meaning in a fast-paced, hyper-connected world. He is a sought-after worship leader and speaker with more than fifteen years of experience working with college students and young adults. Jesse and his wife, Katie, live in Palo Alto, California.
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Publisher: David C. Cook; New edition (October 1, 2009)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Akumal, Mexico, is just over an hour south of Cancun on the Mexican Riviera, a quaint resort community surrounded by white sandy beaches and lush jungle palms. Its miniscule “downtown” is composed of two small grocery stores, half a dozen restaurants, and a scuba-diving shop. It is positioned on a long stretch of beach regarded for its snorkeling and giant sea turtles. It is a tourist trap but few tourists know of it, keeping life in Akumal consistently vibrating at little more than a soothing hum. In other words, it is paradise.
On New Years Day 1998, three particularly pasty psychologists found themselves luxuriating in Akumal while discussing the topic, “What makes people happy?” As soft, eighty-degree breezes swept over the tops of their little tropical drinks sporting little tropical umbrellas, it was difficult to imagine discussing anything else.
Renown psychologist Martin Seligman was one of the three. His round, clean-shaven face and mostly bald head framed an easy smile, making him look like a beardless Santa Claus with a badly sunburned nose. Together with Ray Fowler and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, that’s a lot of consonants but it’s easily pronounced: “cheeks-sent-me-high”), he was celebrating his very first day as president of the American Psychological Association. Seligman was known around the world for his work studying learned helplessness, depression, and, conversely, for his founding contributions to the emerging field of positive psychology. Each incoming APA president is asked to choose a theme for their yearlong term of office. Seligman, frustrated that so much of his field seemed entirely focused on the broken parts of humanity, wanted to steer things in a more optimistic direction. Thus the quiet beach resort, thus the tropical drinks, and thus the question, “What makes people happy?”
One year after that very conversation, Seligman and company—plus a group of young talent being groomed to lead the charge for a more optimistic approach in their field—returned to Akumal as part of a first annual conference on “positive psychology.” The tiny beach community had never seen so much pale skin. Not that psychology had always turned a blind eye to optimism. Throughout the decades there had always been a few rogues willing to brave their fellow researchers’ suspicious looks and folded arms in order to promote a more positive approach to well-being. But here was the beginning of a movement to reorient the entire field, to mainstream what had until then seemed little more than a fringe curiosity.
In the years following the conference, the evidence for what makes people happy began to roll in like a gentle wave in Akumal. What did researchers find? You may be surprised.
More money doesn’t make you happy. Yes, we’ve all been told that “money can’t buy happiness,” but here for the first time was actual scientific research that showed, once our basic material needs are met, additional income does almost nothing to raise our sense of satisfaction with life. (Wouldn’t we all love the chance to prove the exception to the rule?) How about education? Would another degree at a better institution make me happy? Again, research showed that more or better education or even a higher IQ did not equate to happiness. How about the quest to remain eternally young? In a culture that has elevated adolescence into an art form, surely perpetual youth would make us happy? Not so fast. Older people, studies revealed, were consistently happier than younger people. They were also less prone to bouts of depression. What about sunny weather? Be honest: Aren’t Californians happier than Michiganders? Research suggested that while those surveyed in the Midwest assumed Californians were a happier bunch thanks to their extra dose of vitamin D, it turns out there is no correlation between balmy weather and consistent feelings of well-being (though after a long Portland, Oregon, winter, my in-laws usually beg to differ).
So what does cause happiness? Dr. Edward Diener—known to his associates as “Dr. Happiness”—conducted a 2002 study along with Martin Seligman at the University of Illinois. That particular study summed up much of positive psychology’s overall findings. Students who tested with the highest levels of happiness and the fewest signs of depression all had one foundational thing in common: significant social ties to friends and family.
In other words, connection is the key to happiness.
“Authentic connection,” writes psychologist Janet L. Surrey, “is described as the core of psychological wellbeing and is the essential quality of growth-fostering and healing relationships. In moments of deep connection in relationship, we break out of isolation and contraction into a more whole and spacious state
of mind and heart.”
At the root of human existence is our great need for connection: connection with one another, with our own hearts and minds, and with a loving God who intended intimate connection with us from the beginning. Connection is the very core of what makes us human and the very means by which we express our humanity. As Surrey notes, there are no “growth-fostering” or “healing” relationships without connection. Apart from its presence the human heart becomes isolated and fragmented. Let’s look more closely at the power of connection through the lens of two compelling stories.
Harry Frederick Harlow was born October 31,1905. His parents were Mabel Rock and Alonzo Harlow Israel. Harry Harlow was not Jewish, but as an adult he changed his original surname from “Israel” to “Harlow” because he feared the prejudice he likely would have encountered in academic circles of the 1940s and ’50s. In grade school and throughout high school, Harlow demonstrated great proficiency in English, so when he headed off to university, he naturally chose English as his major. Harlow spent his first year studying at Reed College in Oregon and then transferred to Stanford University. At Stanford, Harlow continued his studies, but to his surprise, began doing very poorly in his English courses. Partly to avoid flunking out of Stanford and partly due to a growing interest in human behavior, Harlow switched his studies to psychology. Small decisions can make a big difference. Harlow’s decision to switch majors would eventually revolutionize the entire field of psychology.
Harlow completed both his undergraduate and doctoral degrees at Stanford, taking a professorship at the University of Wisconsin almost as soon as he removed his graduation gown. It was at Wisconsin that Harlow would make a name for himself in a series of cleverly designed experiments that involved a seemingly endless supply of rhesus monkeys.
Harlow, who looked exactly like what you’d expect from a research scientist in the 1950s—white lab coat, horn-rimmed glasses, grease-slicked black hair—was interested in love. In fact his name eventually became synonymous with the “science of affection,” and his best-known paper was titled, “The Nature of Love.” Harlow’s fellow researchers often heckled him and dismissed his fascination with affection for not being “scientific enough.” But he wasn’t deterred. Love was on Harlow’s mind and he knew it was on most other minds as well.
Interestingly, Harlow’s own romantic life would itself become a laboratory of love. He met his first wife, Clara, while she was a subject in a famous IQ study that Harlow just happened to be helping to administer. Clara posted a whopping 150 on the IQ test—well into the “genius” category. They were married in 1932 and had two children, Robert and Richard. Harlow and Clara later divorced in 1946. One
year later Harlow remarried. His new wife, Margaret, was herself a bright psychologist. Together, they had two more children, Pamela and Jonathan. Sadly, Margaret died in 1970 after a long battle with cancer. Again just a single year passed before Harlow was married once more. What kind of brilliant mind did he choose to wed this time? To everyone’s surprise Harlow remarried his first wife, Clara. They lived out the rest of their days together until 1981 when Harlow passed away. Hollywood screenwriters have written less interesting love stories.
But all of that lay in the future. For now, as a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Harlow’s primary “romantic interest” was in primates. One experiment in particular put Harlow on the map. Curious how infant rhesus monkeys would behave in an artificial environment, Harlow and his team built two artificial monkey “mothers.” The first was constructed of simple wire mesh and had a blank-faced head screwed on the top with a tube running out from its neck that could deliver milk to the infant monkey. It resembled he kind of demonic stick figure that people typically ignite at the end of the annual Burning Man festival. The second “mother” was identical except that its “face” was more monkeylike, and its wire mesh frame was covered with soft, warm terrycloth. It looked like an elongated furry snowman that would like to be everyone’s friend. There was one more key distinction between the two mothers: The cloth-covered contraption did not have a feeding tube. It was incapable of providing the infant monkey with food.
The black-and-white film from Harlow’s experiment is both hilarious and heartbreaking to watch. As the tiny elflike monkeys stumble around their cages just a few days after birth, they quickly climb up and take a sip from the wire mother but then scramble immediately back to the cloth mother, where they spend the vast majority of their day. If any element of fear was introduced into the environment, as was the case when researchers placed a drum-playing toy bear into their cage (and who wouldn’t find such a thing troubling?), the little monkeys always ran to the cloth mother for comfort instead of the fooddispensing
wire mother, clinging to her with all their strength until the fear passed.
Harlow and his team had expected the infant monkeys to create some kind of “bond” between mother and child immediately following birth. What they did not anticipate was, if forced to choose, the monkeys would select the nonfeeding cloth mother over the food-delivering wire mother every time. Their need for comforting connection, it seemed, was even greater than their need for food!
But there was more. Following his initial discoveries, Harlow introduced a series of modifications to his experiment. In one case he took away the choice between monkey mothers by separating the infants into two different environments: one with only a wire mother and one with only a cloth mother (a tube was added to the cloth mother to support feeding). Harlow found that monkeys from either environment developed physically at the same rate. It appeared there was little or no difference in the “connective effects” of cloth or wire. This seemed to imply that what the monkeys were connected to did not really matter. The only important thing was that they had some kind of connection.
But the scary drum-playing toy bear changed all of that. When the mechanical bear was placed in the “cloth” cages, the frightened monkeys would scramble on to the cloth mother, cuddling and rubbing against her until they were at last able to calm themselves. At that point, the monkeys would relax and
even become curious and playful about sharing a cage with a toy bear, venturing away from the cloth mother in brief excursions to sniff and paw at it.
The monkeys in the “wire” cages, however, could not have responded more differently. When the menacing toy bear was introduced into the wire cages, the little monkeys fell to pieces. They threw themselves on the floor, and rocked back and forth. They screamed in terror. The effect is so dramatic
that footage from the experiment can be quite disturbing to watch.
What Harlow concluded was that the monkeys in the “cloth” cages must have had access to some kind of psychological resource—what he later called emotional attachment—to help them deal with challenges in their environment, especially the introduction of fear. The monkeys in the “wire” cages had no such resources and fell apart at the first sign of danger. This, Harlow began to see, was evidence that there was in fact a certain kind of connection important not only to healthy development but also to serve in adequately facing challenges that might appear.
Harlow found that there are indeed different types of connection that make for different types of responses. There are some types of connection that enable adaptation and resiliency. There are other connections that create psychological breakdown. The monkeys from either cage developed physically at
normally expected rates. They appeared to be identically healthy and normal from the outside. And they behaved as you would expect healthy monkeys to behave. But those similarities vanished the moment some change—especially some threat—was introduced into their environment. When that happened, the difference in their “inner” realities became obvious. One kind of connection had led to the inner strength necessary to cope with and even overcome environmental changes. The other had led to inner chaos and a radically diminished capacity to cope with anything at all.
Harlow’s findings reflect what we now know to be true for human babies, as well. Bonding, the psychological process by which a mother creates a safe and nurturing environment for the child to develop, lays the groundwork for the baby’s ability to grow into a healthy and well-adapted adult. That is why, as soon as is possible, the new mother is handed her fresh-out-of-the womb baby to physically bond with. If a physical connection is not possible—for example, a health issue that requires the baby to initially be kept in an incubator—mothers are encouraged to speak tenderly to their child, connecting and intimately bonding through the soothing tones of their own voice. Studies have shown that, just like the little rhesus monkeys, a human baby’s need to bond with its parent may be even more important than
its need for food.
Harlow’s findings revolutionized the way psychologists thought about human relationships. Until then it was unlikely any scientist in his right mind would have claimed that some kind of emotional connection was more important to a growing infant than the most basic of all needs, food. But what Harlow demonstrated so vividly with infant monkeys, and what study after study has shown to be all the more true in human beings, is that connection is not just “what causes happiness.” It is also our most basic need.
The reality of our innate need for connection is often most clearly revealed in the experience of dis-connection. Dropped cell phone calls, the loss of a job or career opportunity, a romantic breakup, the death of a loved one—each kind of disconnection alerts us to the fact that we were meant to connect. The feelings that result from a broken connection can run the gamut from simple frustration to complete personal devastation. But we need not explore something as painful as death in order to further illustrate the effects of disconnection. We can do something as simple as turning on the “telly.”
The BBC, the United Kingdom’s mammoth media empire, produces some of the most clever and thought provoking programming that often tickles the funny bone while stretching the intellect. And no, I’m not talking about The Office. In 2006 a BBC television series called Horizon invited six people to take part in a compelling experiment. Adam, Claire, Rickey, Judy, Barney, and Bill agreed to subject themselves to forty-eight hours of sensory deprivation. They signed up to be “disconnected” in every way in order to see what would happen.
Adam is a stand-up comedian in his late twenties. He has a significantly receding hairline, a slight paunch in his belly, and eyes that appear slightly crossed. He’s the most extroverted of the six, a person who—like most extroverts—requires a great deal of sensory stimulation to make sense of the world. He jokes self-effacingly as he imagines the toll the next two days will take on him. “I’m afraid I’ll go mad. What if I start smashing things up?”
Claire is also in her late twenties with short dark hair and a pretty smile. She says she likes a challenge. “I do try to push myself.” As a doctoral student in psychology, she seems ideally suited to thrive in an experiment where her mind will be put to the test.
Bill looks lean and strong and is a former ad executive. He is the oldest in the bunch. He plans to cope with the forty-eight hour experiment by using his skills in meditation. “Every day I like to spend time on my own. I sometimes fantasize about being a hermit, about living up in the mountains and coming down to buy a few supplies in town, then going back to my cabin.” If anyone is going to be fine after two days without human connection, it seems to be Bill.
Rickey is a thirtysomething postal worker whose primary hobby is running one-hundred-mile ultramarathons. Yes, you read that correctly—one hundred miles. He plans to think of the experiment as just another test of his endurance.Barney is a film archivist who imagines quietly that he will probably have a hard time over the next two days. Judy is a copywriter for a toy manufacturer. “I’m very excited to get started,” Judy says, not sounding too excited at all. “I don’t know how I’m going to last, but I guess I’ll just keep going.”
As you can see, the “Horizon Six” were not extraordinary people, at least not any more extraordinary than the rest of us.3 They all had their own ideas of how to best handle a situation like this and their own concerns about whether those techniques would actually work. They were average folks who simply wanted to put themselves to the test, to see what would happen when they were disconnected from life as they normally experienced it.
The experiment took place in an abandoned nuclear bunker, the kind of dark and creepy place straight out of a Hollywood horror film. Walking down the stairs and into the long, dimly lit halls of the concrete structure, one might expect to stumble upon a cast of overly attractive twentysomethings being systematically stalked and hacked to death by some very disturbed but strangely likeable assailant.
The six subjects were given a battery of tests to use for before-and-after comparisons. In the first test, they were given a letter—F, for example—then asked to think of as many words as possible in one minute that began with that letter. Classic Adam: “Fake, farting, football …” For the most part, each of the six breezes through, listing dozens of words that begin with F, though no one else seems to come up with anything as creative as a “fake, farting, football.” The next test is presented to them. In this one the subjects are handed a sheet of paper. On the paper are the names of colors printed in columns: black, red, green, etc. But here’s the catch: The names of the colors do not match the actual color of the ink with which they were printed. For example, the word “black” was actually printed in green ink, the word “red” was printed in black ink, and so on.
The subjects are then asked to name the color of ink with which each color’s name was printed. It’s trickier than you think. Our brains typically register a printed word before we register the color of the printed word. But with a little bit of thought, each subject does quite well. They moved on to the final test. While the researchers were curious how the subjects would perform on the first two tests—any drops in performance would be easy to measure when everything was over—they were secretly interested in something quite different.
The last test, the one the researchers were most interested in, measured “levels of suggestibility.” What they wanted to find out was just how vulnerable someone might become to the power of suggestion when they are cut off from connection, disconnected from their social and sensory worlds. Would they fall for a lie? Would they give in to someone else’s point of view even if it were clearly “wrong”? To test for suggestibility, the researchers read their subjects a story with lots of intricate details, then quizzed them. “Was the assailant hit with a fist or a handbag?” Claire is asked. She looks at the researcher with a furrowed brow. “Well, neither.” Claire gets it right. They were trying to pull one over on her, but she was alert for the details. In fact all of the men and women in the group tested fairly well in the first round. In other words, they had very low levels of suggestibility and could not be talked into believing something
that wasn’t true.
With the testing behind them, the Horizon Six were placed into tiny individual concrete rooms with nothing but a lonely bed for furniture. The rooms looked very much like prison cells without toilets. Three of the subjects were placed in rooms completely sealed off from any light source; they could not see their hands in front of their faces. The other three were placed in well-lit rooms, but it came with a catch. They were stuffed into large, padded gloves and socks to disrupt their sense of touch, frosted goggles to completely hinder their vision, and headphones that played nothing but white noise to thwart their hearing. (The gloves were later removed when the subjects complained of painful rashes.)
As the experiment finally got under way, Claire was immediately overwhelmed by the inky blackness of her cell. She anxiously relayed to her observers that her bed sheets were cold and wet and that something should be done immediately to remedy the situation. Intending to remain silent so as not to influence any outcomes, her observers acquiesced to her concern and assured her via intercom that she was mistaken. The sheets were not wet, they said. She was just imagining things. “I don’t think you’re taking my concerns about the blankets very seriously,” Claire lamented. “No one should have to sleep in wet sheets.” After a short time Claire gave up trying to convince them and climbed into a fetal position on her bed.
After just nine hours the subjects were showing signs of wear. “I’m finding this grossly boring,” said Barney. Adam echoed Barney’s thoughts: “It’s unbearable. I can feel my brain not wanting to do anything.” Adam’s statement may not be far from what actually happens during solitary confinement and sensory deprivation. Just as new neural pathways form in our brain as a result of stimulation, there is now research to show that the opposite may also true. If the brain does not get the stimulation it needs, it begins to turn to mush. Bill, who seemed so keen to spend time by himself in the beginning, now complained, “I don’t really want to be here. It’s starting to get on my nerves. I feel like a … helpless lab rat.” Claire was found in her “cell” counting to herself. Barney had taken up singing. Judy, in the meantime, had simply fallen asleep.
After twenty-four hours (or the time it takes Jack Bauer to save Los Angeles from imminent destruction), the subjects began to exhibit truly bizarre behavior. They raised their voices in angry complaint to the walls. They wept uncontrollably. Many experienced vivid hallucinations. Adam reported, “I thought I could see a pile of oyster shells, empty, to represent all the nice food I could have eaten inside here.” Poor Claire was suffering similar effects. “There’s a snake there,” she said, pointing to the floor. In another strange visual display of the effects of disconnection, almost all the subjects began to pace their tiny rooms back and forth, their brains working to selfgenerate some kind of stimulation in order to keep them going. Not Judy, of course. Judy was still asleep. Judy’s eternal sleep, it turned out, was simply her body and mind’s way of dealing with the overwhelming lack of connection, just another form of a coping mechanism.
After forty hours Adam was in tears. “This is close to insanity.” The subjects seemed to have plummeted in both cognitive and behavioral functioning. Barney was singing again—poorly. Most had begun “hearing things,” and claimed that “someone seemed to be in the room” with them. Judy was—you guessed it—still sleeping.
Finally, the experiment came to a close. A researcher’s voice broke through the inky silence in each of their cells, causing them all a fright. “The forty-eight hours are over.” Adam cried out for relief: “I just want to kiss the person who’s letting me out!” Bill was similarly thrilled and laughed to himself. Claire
was visibly relieved. Judy mumbled sleepily, “Oh. Excellent.”
But before they could be reconnected to the outside world, the subjects were readministered the same battery of tests they were given at the beginning in order to reveal any cognitive changes resulting from their two days as lab rats. Of course, almost without exception, everyone performed poorly, further
proving the disabling effects of isolation (as if anyone needed more evidence than the video footage captured in each subject’s room5). Finally, the camera followed each of the six as they walked back through long, dark halls, up the tall steel stairs, and finally out into the sunshine. Adam, Claire, Rickey, Judy, Barney, and Bill were elated to be set free into a world brimming with connection. “My senses are overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and smells,” said Adam. “You have no idea how good this feels.”
BBC’s Horizon experiment revealed two natural results of disconnection that illustrate our human need to connect. The first result: Cut off from connection, our ability to make sense of the world begins to break down. We begin to see things that aren’t there, to buy into a reality that is wholly skewed. There were no snakes slithering on Claire’s floor. Neither were her sheets wet and cold. They were dry and room temperature, the same as everyone else’s. And Adam did not really have a large pile of seashells growing at the foot of his bed. His room was as empty as the rest. In the real world—the world of connection—Claire and Adam were normally adjusted human beings. In the experimental world—the world of disconnection—they became hallucinating paranoids.
The second result demonstrated by the Horizon experiment was that, cut off from connection, our ability to cope with reality quickly dissolves. In just one day of sensory deprivation and social isolation, each subject was reduced to infantile and even animalistic behavior. They cried uncontrollably and talked to
themselves out loud. They rolled up into fetal positions and huddled on their beds. They yelled at the unsympathetic walls of their room. They even paced their constricting cages like jungle animals, waiting for the moment to attack and escape. Apparently baby rhesus monkeys aren’t the only mammals that
fall apart without the proper connection.
Obviously, the six subjects in the Horizon experiment were placed in extraordinary circumstances. Not many of us (hopefully) live in tiny concrete rooms dominated by an absence of sight, sound, and touch. But the experiment proved what Martin Seligman and his associates began to uncover on the beaches of Akumal, demonstrating its truth by revealing its opposite: If connection can make us happy, then disconnection can make us unhappy. No matter how it was tested, though, connectedness mattered.
Two stories, one common thread woven throughout: the inestimable power of connection. As we saw with Harlow and his monkeys, connection lays the groundwork for growth. In connection we find comfort and safety. We find a nurturing space that allows us to develop as a whole person, maturing inwardly even as we develop outwardly. Without it we might fall apart in the face of terrifying teddy bears. But in the presence of connection, the same toy bear—or whatever real-world challenge we might face—can become a mere curiosity, something we simply adapt to and overcome, growing stronger as we do.
The Horizon Six echoed Harlow’s research: Apart from connection we fall to pieces. Our physical, emotional, and cognitive powers weaken significantly. We become vulnerable to suggestion, and can be easily led to believe things that aren’t true. Our decision-making ability gets cloudy. Our way of viewing the world becomes skewed. We question our ability to cope: Are we going crazy? Will we be able to make it? Am I truly alone? Disconnection seems to leave us locked in little rooms with no light source and no sense of when the madness will end. But it also reminds us of how precious connection truly is. Remember how the subjects responded when finally released from captivity, when they were finally reconnected to their natural environment? Adam, the highly extroverted stand-up comedian, said it best: “You have no idea how good this feels.” Connection, it seems, makes all the difference.
Of course, we are talking about a certain quality of connection, aren’t we? Not just any connection can keep someone from falling to pieces. The average television satellite dish connects us to two hundred-plus channels, each with its own endless number of programs. But not many of us can claim that such a wide variety of connections has revolutionized our lives. Clearly not just any connection will do.
We can look to our own life experience as evidence in the case for quality versus quantity. There are certain people whose emails and phone calls we answer right away, and certain other people whose emails and phone calls we don’t answer at all. If we are having a particularly difficult day, questioning our own worth, wondering what is the point in going on with life, we tend to share this with a certain kind of person and not necessarily the young man behind the counter of our nearest gas station.6 Similarly, if we have good news to share—if a wedding is proposed or a baby is on its way—celebration is usually all the more rich when communicated to certain favorite people.
If we are to make sense of why certain kinds of connection are beneficial and certain others aren’t, we must be more precise in our definition of “connection.” We have to get clear on what kind of connection has the power to secure, grow, free, and transform us. Toward the beginning of this chapter, I quoted psychologist Janet L. Surrey. Here she is again.
Authentic connection is described as the core of psychological wellbeing and is the essential quality
of growth-fostering and healing relationships. In moments of deep connection in relationship, we
break out of isolation and contraction into a more whole and spacious state of mind and heart.
Surrey uses words like “authentic” and “deep” to convey the type of connection that is powerful enough to break us out of “isolation and contraction into a more whole and spacious state of mind and heart.” Even though “authentic” and “deep” are still fairly ambiguous terms, they’re a good place to start. Let’s
build on Surrey’s ideas.
Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual writer of the last century, was a man constantly in search of connection, and his many books represented that search. He wrestled with feeling loved even as he wrote about being the beloved (Life of the Beloved ). He wrestled with hope as he spiraled down into the inky depths of depression (The Inner Voice of Love). He reflected on life in the face of his own mother’s death (A Letter of Consolation). And even though he was a Dutch Catholic priest, his largest audience, by far, was American Protestant evangelicals. The paradox of Nouwen’s life and his message brought hope and healing to millions of readers around the world. His popularity revealed just how well he understood the human condition. He described it this way in his book Lifesigns:
Probably no better word summarizes the suffering of our time than the word, “homeless.” It reveals
one of our deepest and most painful conditions, the condition of not having a sense of belonging, of not having a place where we can feel safe, cared for, protected, and loved.
Nouwen claimed that human suffering was the experience of “not having a place where we can feel loved, safe, cared for, and protected.” He explained that this is what it means to be “homeless.” We can use the inverse of Nouwen’s definition of suffering to help us find a more clear definition of connection: The kind of connection we’re longing for—whether consciously or unconsciously—is the kind that creates a sense of belonging within us, a sense that we are “safe, cared for, protected, and loved.” In other words, we feel most at home—most ourselves—around people with whom we experience that deep and authentic connection that Janet Surrey talked about. As such, we know that, whatever else connection means, it has to include the qualities that most make us feel “at home” in the world.
Finally, listen to this simple dictionary definition, one of several found for the word connection:
A friend, relative, or associate who either has or has access to influence or power.
This is the definition we use when describing someone who got where they are in life because they had “great connections.” But it’s also a description of the kind of connection that matters. We might say, then, that the recipe for the kind of connection we’re trying to define is one that includes authenticity and depth. It is sprinkled with protective safety and dignifying freedom. It contains heaping portions of loving concern for our becoming a better, more whole person. It is seasoned with access to transformative power.
When used in its very best sense, the word home summarizes this definition perfectly. Most of us come from homes that have been fractured in some ways. Many have not been safe, nurturing places. We haven’t always gotten the support and protection we needed. But ideally home was meant to be all of those things—a safe, nurturing, transformative environment where who we are—just as we are—was always celebrated. A place where our highest potential was encouraged and sought after. When we go looking for a best friend, we go looking for home. When we go looking for a spouse, we go looking for home. When we turn our attention to the divine, to spirituality of all kinds, to God Himself, we are looking for home.
There is a truth about our longing for home—our search for community—that emerges from the beginning of the Bible in the second chapter of Genesis: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” God makes this profound observation immediately after breathing His Spirit into Adam. God has just created something that appears to be incomplete; it’s missing something. Has He made a mistake? What does God do in light of his conclusion that “it is not good for the man to be alone”? The answer seems to emphasize the need for a certain quality of connection. God’s response to incomplete Adam: “I will make a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18). To be clear, God was not making a statement about gender roles, assigning women the collective position of “administrative assistant.” Nor was He making an isolated statement about the preeminence of marriage (though marriage, with its qualities of mutual submission, self-sacrifice, and unconditional love, has always been a biblical archetype for every kind of community). Rather, God was clarifying that the fullness of our humanity could only be truly expressed through relationship with a suitable other.
The key word here is suitable. What kind of connection would best “suit” Adam? What quality of relationship would not only meet his basic needs for “home,” but also help him grow and flourish? Badgers, despite their sassy attitude and rugged good looks, did not “suit” Adam. Could he find this quality of connection with a giraffe? Could he teach a parrot enough words to connect in conversation? Adam found himself in what was likely the most beautiful garden ever imagined—couldn’t it have been enough for him simply to connect with nature? While Adam’s ability to care for and relate in healthy ways to his environment was vitally important (as it is for us today), his greatest need for connection was with one of his own. The quality of connection capable of meeting Adam’s need for home was to be found in intimate relationship with another human being. He needed one of his own and that’s what he got—perfectly matched Eve (for whom Adam was also a suitable helper). Remember, Adam was surrounded by creatures. He lived in a world saturated with life; there seemed no end to his connections.
But by intentionally creating both Adam and Eve (and every man and woman since) “in His image” and placing them in unique relationship with one another and with Himself, God demonstrated that the quality of a connection clearly matters.
Think back now to the book’s introduction. When the ribbon was cut and hundreds of people began to make their way across the Millennium Bridge, their individual footsteps generated energy. At first this energy was random, firing all over the place. But very quickly the energy became “synchronized.” It began taking on a life of its own as it passed through various points in the bridge’s structure. That new synchrony, or new “order,” forced the pedestrians to begin walking in step with one another, waddling en masse in a “skating gait.” The event pointed toward the first “reality” we discovered in the case of London’s Millennium Bridge. Here it is again:
1. There is a force that is capable of synchronizing a large population in very little time, thereby creating spontaneous order.
Now consider this: In the first quarter of 2009, five million people joined Facebook every week. In addition, Facebook’s membership doubled from one hundred million to two hundred million people from August 2008 to March 2009. Perhaps most incredible, the vast majority of its members—140 million, in
fact—have only been on the rolls since February 2007. That’s 140 million new users in just over two years. Facebook isn’t just a white-hot social-networking platform. It is a radical example of Steven Strogatz’s spontaneous order.
In a very short period of time (five years), a very large population (several hundred million and counting) has been synchronized (pulled into the orbit of a single Web platform called Facebook). And what kind of gravity is capable of accomplishing such a feat?
The human need for home.
It might sound a bit ridiculous. After all, who would claim to be looking for home in a social-networking site like Facebook? We’re there to keep in touch with friends and family, to make some new friendly connections or reconnections, to share small slices of our personal worlds through pictures and status updates and playful games of Mob Wars. We just want a little mindless entertainment, for heaven’s sake. But as we’ll begin to see in the next few chapters, home is exactly the kind of connection that Facebook is offering. For now it is enough to say that the human need for home is plenty powerful enough to create a spontaneous order all its own. Not even Steve Strogatz saw this one coming.
But what is the nature of this new “order” and how does it help us make sense of this tendency to seek out home wherever we can find it? That’s what we’re going to explore next. And while we began this chapter on the warm, white sand beaches of Akumal, Mexico, I’m afraid we’ll need to venture to a slightly less exotic locale to facilitate our exploration in the next one. I’m referring, of course, to the tiny community of Angola, New York.
©2009 Cook Communications Ministries. The Church of Facebook by Jesse Rice. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.