Jonathan considers the philosophy of human connection and communication, and contemplates the importance of human engagement.
As the nation reacts to the tantalising news that a ‘phase 2’ of the current lockdown regulation is within touching distance, many will recognise the overwhelming desire to reconnect and spend time with loved ones. COVID-19 has torn through societal fabric in a manner unseen since the war, however, the bio-psycho-social cost of these weeks of isolation perhaps carries the most misunderstood of cargos. In this article we will touch upon the philosophy of human connection and communication from a psychological and developmental perspective, and contemplate the importance of human engagement as we look to the future.
Let us begin in 1923 with the Austrian philosopher Martin Buber and the publication of his seminal work, I and Thou. Within the book Buber contends that human life finds its meaningfulness through human relationships. This is the notion that without other people and the co-constructed relationships that we share with others, we would fail to uncover the potential in our own lives; I can only be a father because of my daughter, I can only be a colleague through my relationships with other colleagues, I can only be a son because I inhabit this relationship with my father. Without these relationships, our lives feel narrower and significantly lessened. As we emerge from lockdown, the desire to re-establish these relationships and connections burns brightly for us all.
The different dynamics and roles that we have within these relationships are worth considering, and the ways they add to our sense of self-worth, health and wellbeing. For many thousands of people across Scotland who are shielding during this pandemic for health reasons, or who have been living in isolation without the usual connection and visits from loved ones, the struggle to find meaningfulness in one’s life will have been sorely tested. For the elderly relative starved of visits from family members, the teenager with complex communication support needs who has lost the local connections at the day center, or the individual with sight loss who has been furloughed from her job, a lack of authentic engagement and communication with others can take a significant psychological toll; not only in terms of confidence and mental health, but also in terms of how we construct the idea of ourselves in the world.
The above concept infuses much of modern psychology and perhaps helps us to develop our thinking when considering what is meant by ‘connection’. Let us travel to Scotland next, and to the psychologist and scholar John MacMurray, who writes:
“…the unit of personal existence is not the individual but two persons in personal relation; and that we are persons not by individual right, but in virtue of our relation to one another… The unit of the personal is not the ‘I’, but the ‘You and I’.”
Macmurray, J (1961)
MacMurray constructs the individual not as a solo agent but rather as a person-in-relation-to-another. For him, this is the crucible of human existence and is realised only through our interaction with others. In order to understand this further, we may then begin to think about the myriad of roles and relationships that we have within our lives. From the nod and smile to the fellow passenger on the commute into work, to the catch up with an old friend, we not only inhabit these co-constructed roles, but also have opportunity to reveal and bring our authentic self to these spaces.
The act of communication is not only concerned with the exchange of information, ideas and feelings, but on a deeper, more figurative level, is filled with connection, affinity and unity. Without the reciprocal engagement unearthed through these communicative episodes, the ability to forge these connections and affinities is compromised. The American social psychologist Kenneth Gergen captures this particularly well:
“Individuals, themselves, cannot ‘mean’ anything: their actions are nonsensical until coordinated with actions of others. If I extend my hand and smile, the gesture hovers at the edge of absurdity until reciprocated by another.”
Gergen, T, (1991)
Next, let’s head to Canada and to a champion of person-centred planning, Judith Snow, who offers a beautiful description of communication “as if it were a thread floating between and connecting bodies – giving each body the capacity to be a person”. She suggests that if you are alone then you are alive but not revealed or fulfilled, however, if you come into relationship with even one person then new qualities will develop within you. Developing relationships with two people means even more of the real you can be revealed, and as an individual’s relationships increase in number and diversity, there are greater possibilities for that person “to become themselves and draw forth new capacity in others”.
As we consider the ‘new reality’ within our societies and discuss the values, rights and principles we uphold within our health and social care partnerships, the above thinking strikes me as being of significant importance. The human need and ability to feel connected and to become oneself is both paramount and possible through our communicative relationships with others. Furthermore, we do not need to look far to see how examples of this have become totemic and cherished within the last few months. Conversations with checkout assistants in supermarkets have become imbued with respectful gratitude, genuine and organic applause appeared (before media or governmental intervention) on streets across the country, and nurses, aware implicitly of the significance of their act upon those they would never meet, held the hands of dying loved ones.
The 24th June 2020 heralds the beginning of Deafblind Awareness Week in the UK, and so for our last destination we will head to 1880’s America and to Helen Keller, the author, political activist and lecturer. Keller was the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor’s degree and has become lionised, alongside her teacher Anne Sullivan, as perhaps the world’s most famous deafblind person. The 1962 film ‘The Miracle Worker’ captures the Hollywood version of a story which has become slightly mythologised, where the ‘miracle’ performed was to establish a symbolic system of haptic (touch) communication within the bodily tactile modality. There is no doubt that Anne Sullivan’s teaching, experience and attentive patience helped to forge the deep relationship needed to develop the partnership and was at the centre of Keller’s incredible journey. However, history seldom records that there was another significant communication partner in Keller’s life, Martha Washington.
Martha Washington was the 2-year-old daughter of the Keller household’s cook and Helen Keller and she would spend hours playing together, making up games, holding hands and communicating. As Keller was actually 19-months-of-age before she developed what is believed to be meningitis and the onset of deafblindness, she would have already been bubbling over with proto-language and symbolic gesture. The development, confirmation and re-affirmation of these linguistic concepts will have been forged not only through the teaching of Sullivan, concerned with targets and strategies, but also by simply playing with and being in an authentic relationship with Martha.
As we move forward out of lockdown and towards a ‘new reality’, perhaps we need to pay some attention to our authentic selves and the communication barriers that we have all faced over the last few months; the embodied feelings of loss and frustration at suddenly being barred from sharing our connections with those we hold dear, or perhaps the introverted thoughts that occur when the volume of communication partners in our lives decrease. Communication is the most central aspect of developed humanity and is at the heart of our wellbeing and health. As we emerge from this crisis, let us ensure that our communicative relationships are filled with authenticity and connection, and that we are waving back and smiling, from the other side of the road.