I’ve just returned from a few days in NJ, helping with a family reunion. It was a pretty intense time a lot of fun, but mostly intense in a variety of ways. By pulling me away from my work and my normal world, this visit sharpened my perspective…
Some context: I’m the 5th out of 6 children, from a large Irish Catholic family in southern NJ. My parents and most of my siblings still live there, and a large assortment of cousins and other relatives live nearby or within a day’s drive. All the people in my immediate and extended family are very unique personality, interests, strengths, and flaws. Being around so many of them at once is a bit overwhelming.
During this trip I tried to focus on how people change with context. It seems to me that throwing people together in pairs or groups tends to change which aspects of their personalities get expressed. Whatever it is that I envision as “myself” is fluid, changeable, interdependent. None of us have fixed identities.
Speaking with one particular person you may become more relaxed or defensive. Your body language, tone of voice, and emotional state may shift as new people join the discussion. The history of all your interactions with a specific person sets the backdrop and affects the tone of what’s happening between you now.
It’s one thing to consider this in philosophical terms. It’s another to see it happen, especially with people you’ve known all or most of your life. To see patterns re-establishing themselves, changing gradually. To see a cousin who was always reclusive and silent suddenly being smiling and open in the presence of his new wife. To see your parents feelings more clearly since they’ve grown old and you’ve grown up, the veil of heirarchy in tatters. To see small children gradually warm up to the presence of unfamiliar adults, as they start to sense the patterns. To see photos of small boys, uncles you never knew because they died young and yet they’re still present. They still cause ripples in gatherings of people who knew them.
Yesterday, on my last day of my trip, one of my parent’s oldest and dearest friends died after a yearlong battle with cancer. This was a woman who, as a child, survived Berlin during WWII. At about the same time, my niece (who’s at a difficult time in her life) gave birth to her second child. Two people who never met, one leaving this world as the other enters. Yet they both affected me, and my family, by the overlapping ripples they’ve caused in the web of interpersonal connections. It’s purely coincidental, and also meaningful.
Sunday, one of my oldest and dearest friends joined me for a ramble in the NJ Pine Barrens. We both love the outdoors. I grew up with a love of nature mainly due to this hushed labyrinth of scrub pines, cedars, blueberry bushes, sandy soil, and rust-colored streams and lakes. The pine barrens are a thoroughly unique ecosystem, and they’re vanishing mainly because their context (the character and use of the surrounding lands) has changed so drastically. But on Sunday, Chris and I could still enjoy them and talk in a deep relaxed way that we rarely get to to share due to distance and the complexity of our lives.
At some level, all events, actions, and communications are deeply personal, because they affect who we are within ourselves and in context with others. This, I suppose, is why I care so much about communciation and interaction, how we learn about our world and the meanings we make of it.
It seems that when I take the time to focus on connections between people, meanings and patterns appear. Even flaws and stress are an important part of the picture. I appreciate this world more, and I sense my own place in it more securely.
So even though I prattle on here about technology, media, etc., please understand what compels me toward those fields: people. I like to see people connecting in a more conscious way, even though these experiences are often imperfect or uncomfortable. Every time we connect and especially every time we empathize, if only for a moment our world gets wider and stronger. We can accomplish more.
I hope this helps explain my particular obsessions.