GERALDINE DOOGUE. Connections in our lives.

Underneath the jollity and frantic end-of-year scurrying, I detect a wistfulness about the lack of certainty of connections in people’s lives these days. 

Only Connect  is one of the immortal observations of British writer, E.M. Forster, whose ‘Room With A View’ and ‘Howard’s End’ have delighted millions of readers, alongside his other gems. That little Forster summary has always appealed to me as an ideal motto for life.

It resonates particularly around Christmas and the holiday season. Underneath the jollity and frantic end-of-year scurrying, I detect a wistfulness about the lack of certainty of connections in people’s lives these days. Some years back, during a conference on social cohesion, I remember one of the contributors highlighting the importance of accidental contact in determining whether people felt sure of their community links and thus more secure. It was an important feature of well-functioning groups, that you still felt confident of links even if you hadn’t made firm plans to meet.

But first prize, of course, was a deep certainty about contact with people, a sure knowledge that certain individuals would cross your path at relatively predictable times, including people you both enjoyed and did not, by the way. It wasn’t all high quality interaction, but it was relatively sure. Social pressure played its role.

Instead, I now detect a certain ennui around what people  sense as more tenuous webs of connections compared with expectations in former times. Maybe this does accompany an older world-view, somewhat de-horsed from all the work-related social and deadline commitments and the frantic end-of-year children’s events, with their virtually obligatory  rituals. Maybe there is a little less active engagement by choice, and otherwise,  or a more selective approach to commitment….”think I’ll just give that a miss this year”.

Nevertheless I feel  that many sense their networks of friends and contacts seem now to be more voluntary, less obligatory, and accordingly that much more brittle. Significant groups can thus be left feeling unmoored, insecure about day-to-day links in ways  they never really imagined would be a problem in their previous full schedules.

Many events now seem based on more conscious choice, which makes them rather different to similar events in the past.

Maybe  we do have more right-to-choose these days, so this dilemma arises?  Yet Nobel-prize winning economists like Daniel Kahneman have observed that the supposed boon of copious choice can produce no-choice, a drift to do nothing rather than something,  due to being overwhelmed,  even though it seems so inviting in theory.

Was the choice for connecting (or not)  taken out of our hands in times gone by, due to less individualism, a more presumed set of obligations about turning-up at functions like Christmas, birthdays, shared family events and so on….and definite shame, let alone guilt,  for not sticking by these agreed rules?

Yes, they could be confining. Some of the events were (still are) rather tedious. If they were more sinister than that,  a threat to individual serenity, then no matter what the rules, they should have been avoided at all costs. Toxic families are not to be recommended.  I have long believed there’s far too much romanticism about the notion  of implicit redemption within very difficult pasts. Leaving bad predicaments behind is often the very best answer, to my mind.

But a bit of tedium, even boredom, en route to a more durable set of routine connections in people’s lives, might well be a small price to pay for more individual security, as more and more of us live in more fractured, trimmed-down communities or households.

It is not only family at the core of this. Precious friendship rituals or gatherings with some form of predictability, could well be the glittering prize. At a recent wonderful memorial service in North Sydney to send-off the much-loved Fr Peter Quin, SJ, who died in Brisbane in late November,   the presiding priest Fr Andy Bullen spoke of the literally life-saving balm of good friendship. Our  friend Peter modelled this so well, consistently choosing links with others and re-inventing ways of meeting, throughout his 86-year life.  And the yield for him (let alone others) was so vivid: a natural extrovert,  he was so visibly blessed, in terms of a observably  good life.

If we dream of eliminating or reducing the scourge of loneliness or its lesser cousin, ennui, Peter’s life was a great advertisement for embedding the notion of ‘only connect’ into everyday existence; or to use the modern parlance, it was a win-win solution without peer.

Geraldine is an ABC journalist and broadcaster.

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