Relationships with others #

Communities #

I just got home from an eleven-day trip to the East, where I spent a few days in Hong Kong with a good friend before a week in Thailand for a reunion with our group of university friends. We were nine men, all at very different places in our lives, many of us living in different countries, all with different priorities, financial situations, relationship statuses and backgrounds, united only by the fact that we spent a few crucial years of our lives together. We met up for a week and did very little other than be together in the same place, talk, eat, drink and relax.

It struck me when I got home how rare and precious an experience this is in the modern urban West. How seldom we are able to set aside time to just be together in a community that we have chosen, without some predetermined goal or some “forced purpose” (work events, weddings, churches). To just be together, with all of the therapeutic effects that can bring.

I noticed very strikingly the tendency for anxiety to fade in this environment. For this to happen it’s crucial that the gathering is not particularly active, that there is no deadline and no organising to do, and that people are permitted to become comfortable, to let time slip away, and to be themselves. Anxiety, in the Freudian sense as a battle between the ego and superego, withers under the forgiving lights of such an environment, where there is little to prove or perform, and where the usual hardships and competitions which make up existence in society are suspended.

The number of people is very important as well, as it allows for the weight of pressure to be distributed evenly across the group, reducing its effect on any individual. Silences in a conversation between two people, which in a vacuum can lead to the feeling of having to be on in order to fill them, become trivial when there are seven other people in the room having their conversations, whose voices are always statistically likely to fill the gaps and reduce the feeling of difficult silence.

It’s overwhelmingly sad to think about how common a part of the human experience this simple ritual once was. Indeed for the vast majority of human history, across all cultures, the simple act of sitting together in a community and doing very little was probably the central non-survival part of the human experience. When there was little else to do but work or do nothing, no demon smartphones or books or televisions to fill dead time, all we had to entertain ourselves was each other, was words, and conversations, and the warmth of our friends and family filling our silences.

I wonder what the impact of this loss is on myself, and on human beings more generally, individually and collectively. How necessary is this experience to our happiness? How ingrained is it in the collective psyche, and what damage is being caused by its sudden excision in the course of a few short generations?

I don’t find it so difficult to imagine a future, maybe after some cataclysmic war, when society is once again made simple. When sitting together ininhibited and untethered once again becomes commonplace and natural. When simple communities are permitted through circumstance and geography and lack of constraints on time and mental resources once again to exist and to flourish. And I wonder what these communities will have to say, in their quiet, measured and meditative way, about Western society in the early twenty-first century. About its obscene devotion to the individual, its obsession with technology, its social media hate-spirals and its endemic of anxiety and depression. Will we see, in this imagined future, the damage we did to ourselves, much in the same way we now look at executives smoking on planes and in boardrooms in the ‘Sixties and shudder, thinking ‘how could they do that?’

I feel fortunate, and I encourage anyone who is lucky enough to have a community like this and to share this experience, to cherish their chance to be part of the past, and of the future, without having to endure the war to get there.