Being yourself is a pretty scary prospect. The reality of sitting alone with oneself in a room is more than most people can handle. The idea itself is even a little frightening for some. If just being temporarily alone with our own thoughts is more than we can handle, how could we even imagine being alone in the world? And so we build relationships and connections and interconnections, as we should. Understanding how to separate those connections from our own true selves is one of the primary difficulties involved in figuring out what it means to have a good life.
The connections that we have with others are a vitally important part of our well-being and our quest to understand our life and our place in the world, but misunderstanding those relationships for what we really are leaves us in a constant state of dependency. Dependency is natural, and it would be silly to even try to avoid it, but it complements us rather than defines us. When we sever real connections with others who have been important in our lives, or when we develop new connections that shake things up for us, we're left with deep and sometimes troubling questions of who we are. We deal with the problems of connectedness throughout our lives, yet we develop an incredible web of false communities and connections (granfalloons)that we seemingly never question.
When someone tells you that they can dance well because they're Colombian, they've bought into a granfalloon. They can dance well because they've spent a large amount of time dancing. Their individual efforts, while they might have been mediated through their surroundings and culture, are their own achievement, and they deserve to be recognized as such.
When someone tells you that they're respectful of their teachers because they're Chinese, they've bought into another granfalloon. During the Cultural Revolution children were happy to beat their teachers to death in the streets or to accuse them of crimes they knew to be lies. Your friend is respectful of their teachers because they've been taught to do so and, more importantly, accepted those teachings as relevant and important.
When someone thinks that they know you because they're from the same country or follow the same religion or watch the same sports team they're not just creating a false connection, they're discounting their and your own complexity. There are reasons to do this, and sometimes a cursory nod to these false connections can be used to test out the waters, to see if there might be deeper connections to be formed with another person, but in and of themselves they're hollow. They do nothing to help us understand others, and they only cloud our understanding of ourselves.
Our connection to each and every other human being in the world is our most basic, though sadly it is often our weakest, connection. We have an equal connection to all of those whom we haven't met. There are millions of people living in the state of Indiana whom I haven't met. There are millions of people in the country of Iran whom I haven't met. I might feel that I have a stronger connection to all those other Hoosiers, but that connection is built on a very sandy foundation, and the fact that I'm from Indiana shouldn't be understood to give me a stronger connection to Hoosiers than to Iranians. We all share the happiness, traumas, and difficulties of life, and there are more than a few Hoosiers I don't think I could ever really connect with.
We are interconnected strongly with those who are in our family and circle of friends. We are connected to all other human beings, regardless of our time and circumstances, regardless of whether our countrymen like or hate them, and regardless of whether we really understand that we are or not. We are ourselves first though, and our definition of ourselves can't rest on others. If all those others get pulled away, what would we be?