We spend a great deal of our energy on fitting in. While insecurity and ego are sometimes part of this effort, it’s inappropriate to think of “fitting in” as a weakness or a crutch. The drive to connect is built into the essence of being human. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk in his (one of the best I’ve read in the last five years) book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” says, “Our culture teaches us to focus on personal uniqueness, but at a deeper level, we barely exist as individual organisms.
Our brains are built to help us function as members of a tribe. We are part of that tribe even when we are by ourselves, whether listening to music (that other people created), watching a basketball game on television (our own muscles tensing as the players run and jump) or preparing a spreadsheet for a sales meeting (anticipating the boss’s reactions). Most of our energy is devoted to connecting with others.”
If we do not exist as individual organisms, perhaps we, as connected individuals, are better defined as a superorganism. A collective in which the individual parts cannot be understood separate from the others. Humans are mammals, we grow, survive and thrive in groups. We are conceived through connection, grown in the womb through placental connection and are held as babies to maintain that connection. We have neural cells and synaptic connections that host our ability to “read” and respond to others according to our perception of their connection to us. These are called mirror neurons and develop to help us maintain connection in more sophisticated ways as our contribution to our community matures. But our need for connection does not decrease.
This sheds light on the damage our hyper-individualistic focus does to the youngest members of our tribe. Pre-wired for connection, we deny their basic human drive for belonging and meaning when we define autonomy as a separation rather than our contextual capacity. Independence is useful when we consider the value of learning to feed ourselves, use toilets, read, write and drive a car. Problem solving is useful and our learned individual capacity moves us into a realm where we can add our perspective to problem solving as a group. Independence is not meant to increase our capacity until we can manage our circumstances alone. Alone is not practical, healthy or good except in appropriate doses.
A superorganism can be defined as "a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective." At this point in our story, the phenomena we need to focus on is behaving like a superorganism.
Our young are among the most susceptible to cultural illness. Their psychological and social immune systems are more vulnerable to disconnection. Their state of internal and social homeostasis relies on significant input from caregivers and social connections. Our over-valuation of independence has created a cultural crisis. Our young are showing us that this is true. Their increased damage from adversity, the statistics on anxiety, depression, suicide, truancy, substance abuse, and etcetera are clear warnings that we are ill on a cultural level.
Not only has our hyper-individuality created separation when our young need connection, it has modeled for them the exact opposite of the thinking and behavior that will repair the mistake. We have taken away what they need as well as the tools to get it back.
The solution is not that complicated. We do what we need. We connect. Not only with them but with each other. We stop pretending we are the lone wolf (wolves are pack animals anyway), Marlboro man (someone else grew that tobacco), bootstrapped bad ass and start acting like we need each other. If there are 100 parts to an organism and each of us is one part (I’m just simplifying the math here), then we are “needing” from 99 parts and contributing one. It does not reduce us to need, it increases us to receive. There is no shame in needing - there is shame in needing and pretending otherwise. There is shame and destruction there.
We have the capacity, in concert, to produce phenomenon. Let’s do that. Let’s see what happens to our kids when we provide the rich soil of connectedness for them to grow in. We can watch suicide statistics drop, see our kids internalize their stories of strength, become rooted in hope and resistant to despair. We will watch as innovation increases, marginalization decreases and mental, emotional and behavioral health improves dramatically.
This is a paradigm shift that happens in each of us internally when we decide against separation and for connection. When we embrace the humility required to experience the relief of our need for relationship being met. It happens in the quiet, when we look into the mirror and recognize the ache in our souls and do not turn from it. It grows in us when we stop expending energy to resist and rest instead.
We all want to connect. Let’s just do it.
The Caring Adult Network is a growing group of adults who are committed to fulfilling the need for healthy relational connection in their own lives and in the lives of the youngest generation. We practice in programs, organizations, institutions, homes, neighborhoods, initiatives and the mundane experiences of everyday life.
I write about belonging, storytelling, community building, prevention, trauma, resilience, neuroscience, and epigenetics.