The feeling of being disconnected began at the beginning. Our silent exercise on the rainy afternoon of last intensive began by lining up the cohort single file, hands joined, at which time the group was divided in half, the division occurring next to me. Losing that presence beside me and thereby trailing disconnected at the end of the line was instantly unsettling. Little did I know that it set the stage for the escalating moments that were to follow.
Once inside the classroom, hands still joined, we were asked a series of questions to which we represented our response via a step forward or backwards, each a tangible movement and physical embodiment of the things in our lives that had furthered or hindered us. What began as a center collective quickly broadened as a spectrum spanning across the room. With each step further we strained to keep the handheld connection with individuals being pulled in different directions – at the points in the process where the distance became too great to maintain contact, the separation was visceral and jarring.
Allan G. Johnson encapsulated the turmoil of the feelings this experience surfaced in exploration in his book Privilege, Power, and Difference:
“The less connected to them I feel, the less responsible I’ll feel. It isn’t that I owe them something as a debtor owes a creditor. It’s rather that my life is bound up in their lives and their in mine, which mean that what happens to them in a sense also happens to me. I don’t experience them as ‘others’ whom I decide to help because I’m feeling charitable at the moment. The family is something larger than myself that I participate in, and I can’t be part of that without paying attention to what goes on in it” (Johnson, page 72-73).
At various intervals we were asked to stop and look around the room from differing points of perspective that had been created. As the distances became greater, the feeling of separation anxiety intensified – as a representational group meant to illustrate global realities, the feeling of interconnectedness strained and stretched to a repeated breaking point. Seeing the system personified was gripping, especially the suddenness of setbacks that created separation as others were thrust ahead, moments before having stood shoulder to shoulder.
The symbolic representation felt like being chess pieces in an imaginary game, with each question being a move from an invisible player, to which Johnson sheds light on the actual realistic parallels that exist in society.
“If we think of Monopoly as a social system – as ‘something larger than ourselves that we participate in’ – then we can see how people and systems come together in a dynamic relationship that produces the patterns of social life, including problems surrounding privilege and oppression” (Johnson, page 83).
This sense of seeing the players as entities distinct from the game itself – as layered, dynamic systems are at work – is illuminating. Especially now, as a classmate insightfully commented in our debrief conversation, as the extremes will most likely only continue to intensify in our lifetime, perspective is vital.
“What we experience as social life happens through a complex dynamic between systems – families, schools, workplaces, communities, entire societies – and the choices people make as they participate in them and help make them happen. How we experience the world and ourselves, our sense of other people, and the ongoing reality of the systems themselves all arise, take shape, and happen through this dynamic. In this way, social life produces a variety of consequences, including privilege and oppression. To understand that and what we can do to change it, we have to see how systems are organized in ways that encourage people to follow paths of least resistance. The existence of those paths and whether we choose to follow them are keys to what creates and perpetuates all the forms that privilege and oppression can take” (Johnson, page 84).
I don’t want to ever forget being in that room that rainy afternoon, surrounded yet disconnected, craving connection and lacking perspective from my place in the room. The feeling of the web of humanity that despite any distance created, tied us all to shared needs and purpose was foundational to why we have all come to this program at this time. As we learn to view all the pieces of our lives systematically, through shared experience we will broaden the scope of our lens. I want to cultivate a life of gratitude and generosity in thought, mind & spirit as our learning continues and seek connection through depth and meaning found in unforgettable experiences like this.