The Happiness of Association
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Swami Vivekenanda, an Indian Hindu monk who died in 1902, was quoted as saying:
“The rain drop from the sky:
If it is caught in hands, it is pure enough for drinking.
If it falls in a gutter, its value drops so much that it can’t be used even for washing the feet.
If it falls on hot surface, it perishes.
If it falls on lotus leaf, it shines like a pearl and finally, if it falls on oyster, it becomes a pearl. The drop is same, but its existence & worth depend on with whom it associates.
Always be associated with people who are good at heart.”
Our associations bring us up close and personal to other beings—people and animals as well as manufactured and natural environments where qualities of architecture, air, water, noise, light, spatial dimension, and so on, converge. We will never be alive in a vacuum, so we cannot be completely impervious to our surroundings, although great variability exists in how much we absorb or how sensitively we experience the interpersonal and environmental elements around us.
As in the above quote, different associations co-construct the use or meaning of a rain drop. The rain drop has no absolute, inherent meaning or function. As the rain drop associates with its interactive environmental partners, meaning and function unfold as an expression of the association. How we behave, think and feel as people, often takes on characteristics in response to those with whom we associate.
My litmus paper test for a great relationship results in liking the “me that I am with you.” In other terms, we tend to like people who we feel bring out the best in us, whether in the workplace, in our neighborhoods, in our couples or with our friends. We tend not to enjoy hanging out with others when we feel less than our best—when our argumentative or cranky or judgmental facets come to the foreground. If I enjoy feeling smart or funny or feisty or understanding or helpful or curious about others, or admiring of others, then I enjoy interacting with those people who co-create those personal experiences for me.
Intuitively, parents feel clear about this and often, to the disgruntlement of their adolescents, forbid their children to hang out with peers whom they see as troublemakers or “bad influences.” What a teenage boy might elect to do, as an associate of his parents, might differ dramatically when he immerses himself in a group that enjoys playing pranks, sometimes just this side, or the other side of legal.
Although there are differing theories of “crowd” or “herd” mentality, some common elements include the submergence of individual identity into the shared identity of the group. The contagiousness of the energy in the group, like being born out to sea by a series of powerful waves, moves us along and may, temporarily influence us to behave in ways we might not, were we to have reflected on our own. Over the years I have seen many young people who would never have thought of bashing their neighbors’ mailboxes had they not been with a group of their friends in a speeding van, awash in beer and laughter. It is very difficult to distinguish oneself from a powerful encompassing influence. Our desires to be insiders rather than outsiders, to belong, and to feel accepted, also contribute to going with the crowd.
Gangs also represent powerful groups with whom a person might associate, generating a sense of identity as part of an entity greater than oneself, and therefore more powerful, and perhaps more successful materially or in terms of a status to which one can aspire. Like a fraternity one does not have to live in isolation. One can feel known, can belong, feel accepted, and there’s a context for aspiration to unfold. As many have written, the downsides to gang membership—violence and early death, drug dependence, a lack of real traction in the greater society, etc.—make it a mostly dysfunctional alternative to more positive associations. Having said that, family dissolution, poverty, lacks in education and opportunity as well as few positive role models and mentors can make any positive associations out of reach if not non-existent for some youth.
In two powerful novels, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and King Rat, by William Clavell, individuals in a context dissimilar to the one in which they were raised, take on status, motivation and behavior that would not have shown up otherwise. In the first instance, British boys on a deserted island form their own society to maintain some order and to work together. Increasingly, chaos takes over with violence, superstition, and murder. In King Rat, an American corporal and prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp in Singapore during World War II, takes on a powerful status within the camp that he never had nor would have had in his civilian world.
The positive power of associations, on the other hand, gets expressed in cohesive sports teams and work groups who accomplish things well beyond what would have resulted from isolated individuals working independently. Often a pep talk precedes a game or an inspirational speaker jazzes a sales force to aspire to new heights. This energy offers a positive contagion and spreads throughout the group.
Historically, agricultural work groups often sang songs together to unify their repetitive processes, as well as to lighten the load of such exhausting work. Collective singing alleviates isolation and monotony. The cohesive group focuses on the pleasure and meaning of the songs. Rhythmic chants or songs on vessels also kept rowing crews together. Their synchronization propelled the boat along. Today coxswains provide a similar unifying, pacing count.
Associations—singing groups, exercise classes, writing groups, brainstorming cohorts, etc.—also put wind in our sails. We get a boost from our compatriots and harness their energies to our own. The synergy helps us when our personal energy would otherwise drop. We go one more step, produce another page, or try once again to get the harmony just right.
Environments too have associative components. In a theatre or chapel we keep quiet. At a nightclub we dance up a storm and yell to our friends over loud music. In a classroom we respectfully wait our turn to speak. Where we go and where we live often begin to fit us like old clothes. Whether a tent in the trees or a mansion, when we live or work someplace long enough, we might develop a real fondness for the place that houses us, or houses our efforts.
April is National poetry month, and I was so struck by this gem of a poem by C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933). I will quote the whole introduction to the poem from poem-a-day, sent via the internet from Knopf:
“Daniel Mendelsohn writes in his introduction to Complete Poems, by C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), that he lived in a seemingly dull and ordinary fashion: “The cluttered, déclassé surroundings, the absence of aesthetic distinction, the startlingly conventional, to say nothing of middlebrow, taste: Cavafy’s apartment, like his job, gave little outward sign of the presence of a great artistic mind—the place from which the poetry really came.”
In the Same Space
House, coffeehouses, neighborhood: setting
that I see and where I walk; year after year.
I crafted you amid joy and amid sorrows:
out of so much that happened, out of so many things.
And you’ve been wholly remade into feeling; for me.
Cavafy’s feeling-infused surroundings reminded me of the year I lived in a small yellow, and yellowing room, in the eaves of the farmhouse on Mica Farm. Sun had bleached most of the wall paper but for brownish stains where leaks from an old roof had toyed with it. Some old wicker furniture—a chair, a stool—had cracked, flaking off some of the white paint. The bed sagged and creaked, the mattress literally desiccating into dust. From the windows under the eaves a vast expanse of meadow to a woods in back, and across the horse pasture in front, apples trees and then the road. We had only planned on staying for two months, at the most, while waiting for the all-important certificate of occupancy so that we could move into the new home we were building. I cried when we left. The shabby room with its wide planked pine floors had somehow entered my heart, and its quiet perch over the spread of land under it, nested me gently and I had come to sleep well there. I realized that almost any place can come to feel like home, even a single room.
An association is an energetic whole that contextualizes its component parts, the size and the power of which varies a great deal. Associations can have materiality—families, workplaces, neighborhoods, places of worship, recreational groups, teams, and so forth. But we can also associate virtually and psychologically, with particular systems of religious or political doctrines or social, cultural and tribal beliefs. The complicated part is that each component is both modified by and modifies the other constituents in a way that can only be understood as creating a unique phenomenon or system with its own functioning, traits and energetic output. This cannot be dissembled as a summation. The adage, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” captures this idea.
Marsha Linehan, the master mind behind Dialectical Behavior Therapy, developed a unified set of concepts to help people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Highly sensitive persons who respond and react intensely to emotions might experience “dysregulation”—a difficulty calming and soothing amplified affective states. DBT promotes integrative notions like “rational mind” and “emotional mind” coming together in an overlap called “wise mind.” Informed by both feeling and thought, it is possible to accept what happens in life, as well as the consequent feelings that arise from those situations, but to lightly free oneself up from being ruled by those feelings. The philosophical term “dialectical” generally describes the possibility of a new result, concept, or understanding, arising from opposing, or seemingly opposing points of view. Sometimes known as ‘thesis’ and ‘antithesis,’ these polarities in thought, cause creative friction when opposed, often generating unique possibilities and outcomes. In the Hegelian notion of dialectic things are seen as contradictions. Other terms that describe a dialectic are proposition and counter-proposition.
In DBT, one dialectical notion concerns the idea of “radical acceptance” of oneself as one is, of one’s emotions, and the slings and arrows of life, while, at the same time, “changing” one’s behavior and approach toward these. On the surface, if one accepts oneself, how would the need to change arise from that? The dialectical tension between these two creates opportunities to hold oneself in high regard while continuing to embrace greater empowerment (over the emotional and behavioral outputs generated in the context of disappointing, hurtful, or otherwise upsetting events or interactions).
Even our words live within matrices of association, and often breathtaking poetic images and metaphors wake up our consciousness to new experiences by taking words from different matrices and juxtaposing them. I was remembering the book, The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler which talked about matrices of association. Take a word like “shade,” in a poem called ‘From Blossoms’ by Li-Young Lee. ‘Shade’ lives in a matrix of associations like light and dark, perhaps trees and foliage, clouds, etc. But in the poem Lee offers us a delicious rendition of eating peaches (“peaches” from a matrix of associations having to do with fruit, etc. and ‘eating’ has its own set of associations): “O, to take what we love inside, to carry within us an orchard, to eat not only the skin, but the shade. . .”
To eat the shade of the day. How extraordinary, novel, uplifting, expansive. To carry an orchard within us. We can feel our imaginations soar as we take in the sense, the meaning, the connections we haven’t made previously in our lives.
James Joyce wrote sometimes in a “stream of consciousness,” where thoughts tumble out as idiosyncratic associated contents. “Thought is the thought of a thought.” (Chapter 2, Ulysses). Journal writing, and even the mental chatter that goes on in our heads most of the time have repeat concerns and themes but also ramble on in paths, however circuitous, that describe our associative capacities.
As we go through life, we have ever greater numbers of experiences that reinforce or modify our thoughts, opinions, impressions and feelings about many things. You could say that our previous thoughts and experiences get enriched or altered by succeeding contexts of experience which, like concentric circles, redefine the contents at their centers.
Just like our literal associations with other people can grow, forming more vast and complex networks (we all know about the value of networking professionally/occupationally) so can our intellectual and emotional associations grow and mature. Creative solutions to life problems as well as to challenges in engineering, science, and the arts, often come from cross-fertilization. Cross-fertilization is identical to the notion of previously dissociated matrices of words or thoughts, now coming together to create something entirely new.
Our associations can happily inspire us, buoy our energy, drive and determination; can contribute to a whole greater than we can build on our own, and also prompt us to rethink and re-examine our thoughts and feelings. On the downside we can get carried along on a negative stream of thought, belief, and action. When that occurs, changing our associations can help us advance new perspectives and develop ourselves in more positive ways.
Camel Saddle: Who do you count among your closest associates and why? In whose company do you feel like your best self? What beliefs do you hold dear? What beliefs might you question in light of new experiences and newly associated people, ideas and feelings? In what groups or communities do you experience the most synergy?