I have been thinking a lot about dissociation lately.
Not only dissociation in the context of the psychological process of detachment, which is probably most widely understood in extreme cases of someone experiencing a traumatic event and detaching themselves from that experience at the time of the event as an adaptive coping mechanism, but also the more elective dissociation which comes from turning a blind eye to things – either external events (local or worldly) that we find disturbing, or, more personally, our own feelings we find difficult to be present with.
These two kinds of choosing to turning a blind eye to things – 1) to external events and 2) to our own feelings – are two different things, although to some extent one could argue that the latter is always present in cases of the former: that at heart the process of turning away from what is going on across the street, across the country, or across the globe, has something to do with our own inability or unwillingness to be present with the difficult feelings that facing such events rouses.
But are there also times when it is necessary and healthy to turn away from things? To at least take a breather, or to choose to narrow our focus onto a select few events, in order to avoid being overwhelmed by the (distressingly plentiful) number of distressing events going on across our nation and worldwide?
The supposed inter-connectivity offered by our current era means that we (those of us with the privilege of having access) are able to receive a great deal of information about places where we are not actually present, may never have been present, and may never have the opportunity to be present. Does this information make us more connected? Does digital-connectivity make it easier for us to understand that we are inevitably connected to other people, other creatures, other organisms, that we are part of systems (social, political and ecological) and our experiences do not happen in a vacuum? Or does it ultimately make us feel more splintered, more detached from the here and now?
Is all of this so-called connectivity expanding our capacity for empathy? Is it even encouraging us to be connected to ourselves?
There are no easy answers to these questions. Certainly there are countless benefits to being aware of what’s going on globally, nationally, and in one’s local community, and the new-found possibilities of rallying support across digital media can be wildly inspiring and can break down isolation.
Just as the process of reading stories help can develop an individual’s imagination and stretch their capacity to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, so too does connecting with the stories of others via blogs, online forums and even (at their finer moments) social media platforms, have the capacity to build understanding and empathy, the very pillars of connecting in a human sense.
But even reading a book is an activity somewhere on the continuum of dissociation. As incredibly valuable as reading is, it is a kind of turning away from the here and now; a potential mode of anesthetics.
Anesthesia or numbness can be found in many forms. Drugs. Alcohol. Self-harm. Gambling. Zoning out on anything that has the capacity to remove you from any present uncomfortable feelings. And distractions of all shapes and sizes, including cynicism and holding yourself together in order to take care of someone else.
Lately I have been reading a book by Anne Lamott (the author of the wonderful Bird by Bird: some instructions on writing and life) called Travelling Mercies: some thoughts on faith, and I was struck by this description of grief and loss.
The depth of the feeling continued to surprise and threaten me, but each time it hit again and I bore it, like a nicotine craving, I would discover that it hadn’t washed me away. After a while it was like an inside shower, washing off some of the rust and calcification in my pipes. It was like giving a dry garden a good watering. Don’t get me wrong: grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of life, of the now, of a sense of living spirit.
…Whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you. A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life has not fallen apart. But since your life may indeed have fallen apart, the illusion won’t hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear the disillusion. You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then to keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things: softness and illumination.
What resonates with me about this description is how relevant this revelation is, not only to the experience of grief, but to all intense and difficult feelings which we are tempted to turn away from, to anaesthetize our selves from.
One of the problems of doing this, of distracting or detaching, as Lamott points out, is that this avoidance can train ourselves to be disconnected from all intense feelings in life, and mean that we end up losing out on experience itself, the here and now, by never allowing ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable to being impacted on by life.
Perhaps in order to empathize with, be connected to, and genuinely experience compassion towards others, we need to start as locally as it is possible to get; with our selves; and work outwards from there.
Wherever the starting point may be, maybe what is needed is to remember to check-in with the here and now on a regular basis, without flinching, and to be wary of the possibility of using digital media and the illusion of being connected as a distraction: a means to dissociate from the concrete world.