Connection in a world of disconnect:
Possibly one of the most irritating travel clichés relates to the idea of ‘finding yourself’ when far from home. It speaks of course to spiritual and emotional discovery rather than a physical epiphany. As I approach a midway point, in what I hope will be an at least an average length lifespan, I am fortunate enough to have travelled a lot. I haven’t counted countries, and for me I am not sure I want to – some explorations have been in depth and over weeks, others just a day trip across a border! My wisdom amassed so far over these many journeys to different communities and cultures is that the ‘finding’ of oneself is as likely to happen at home on a mundane Monday morning cooking eggs as it is on an action packed Saturday night in some far-flung country. Yet, I also reflect on the concept of Ubuntu. That southern African understanding that we only find ourselves when in community with others: It is in human relationship we find our purpose and belonging. I am, because we are.
I write this blog while travelling. I am sat at an airport in Chiang Mai, Thailand. People scurry back and forth, all set to depart to different destinations and lives. Some here as tourists like me (note to ‘travellers’, it sounds more meaningful to be a traveller but we are all tourists!); some here for work; some travelling to Bangkok to see family or seek opportunities; some heading home; some running from home. I know the man next to me, my husband, but I don’t know the hundreds of others bustling around the Domestic Terminal. We are all connected though. We are all just one conversation away from learning each other’s names and lives.
Yesterday, on a day tour in Mae Wang District, we stopped our tuk tuks to chat with some local farm workers growing onions. My Thai extends to “Hello” and “How are you?”, but with the help of our guide we engaged in a chat with three delightful older women about their work on the farm. There was no agenda other than to connect. I asked about the pattern of their day, they asked how big UK onions grew and then laughed when deciding Thai onions were definitely superior. It was a simple five minutes spent chatting with fellow human beings. We are never likely to see one another again. Yet, from that conversation, I learnt that they would only earn around 300 Thai Bhat per day (around £8). I learnt that there is no pension in Thailand so often older people still have to work in spite of their age or infirmity. I learnt unspoken things too – all three women were gregarious, warm and engaging. It was not simply me as a western tourist wanting to say hello, they called us over to greet us. That conversation stays with me, and was more meaningful than many of the other more typical tourist exchanges that occur in a day here. I am, because those three women are.
In Thai Buddhism the concept of impermanence is an important one – do not hold on to anything to too tightly as nothing lasts for ever. However, people are also encouraged to serve one another and to express generosity to all of nature. People are encouraged to connect. In all other major religions and philosophies, including in my own faith of Christianity, connection plays an important role too. Christians believe the way we serve one another, especially the ‘stranger’, is an expression of the love we receive from God. Connection is not simply stressed as a good idea, it is central as an expression of faith.
I am trying to avoid seeing too much of the world news while I am away. I have to engage very actively with it for work when home, so it is healthy for me to focus a little more on the moment and place I am in for a couple of weeks. It has been difficult to miss the escalation in tensions between Iran and the US though. Even when trying to be disconnected I am not – these world events have an impact on all of us. In contrast though, we also live in a world where we are all individually connecting less outside the digital world. There are far fewer encounters like the one I had with the farmers. Sat here in this airport are many others, a mirror image of me – headphones on, eyes glued to their tablet or phone, not speaking to the person next to them.
We have never been more connected. We are linked through our trade, through the food we consume and the clothes we wear, through our digital platforms, through the terrible impact we have had on our shared climate and environment. We have also never been more disconnected. In the UK mental illness is on the rise and my own social media feed is full of people – young and old – speaking more of loneliness. It is very sad.
How do we remedy this disconnect? Instead of ‘finding ourselves’ how can we refind each other and seek out our shared humanity?