Remember the movies that would show a young boy planting a tree with his grandfather? (insert your own relationship, sex, age, etc.) Then the scene would come back to that tree later to show a sense of connectedness.
When I was in college I got a book called Man Alone which consisted of a series of articles on alienation. I had trouble understanding that at the time, but over the years I’ve seen alienated and unalienated people and all those in between and do now have a sense of that. A good deal of the writing on this topic discusses the cause of alienation as if we all understand its opposite, what I have called connectedness. The groundedness of the natural life is taken for granted, whether that life be peasant life or hunter-gatherer life or some other way of being connected to the soil.
And it is usually the soil or some other aspect of nature that we supposedly connect to. Sometimes other people: family, the military, a disciplined order, the nation, the tribe, but more often it’s nature, either the forest or the sea or the tundra. In Dersu Uzala and The Gods Must Be Crazy and Walkabout and almost every “Indian” movie and so many other films, we see people very connected to their physical environment, as if there is something about knowing when it’s about to rain or where the fattest game is that anchors us.
Not only anchors us but makes us wise and calm. All of this is in contrast to….. guess what? The city. Alienation is so often connected, so to speak, to city life. Jump in here and offer examples of alienation in the countryside or the desert; I just can’t think of any. But is the city really the culprit? To hear tell, people living in big cities with close ethnic neighborhoods had much the same connectedness as rural people and life in even a small town could result in alienation if we are disconnected from the soil.
The picture that comes to mind is some sort of Pearl Buck movie with a noble farmer, face lined with the good soil he and sometimes she has farmed for countless generations, looking off into the distance at gathering clouds. Those clouds symbolize coming change, often in the form of war or famine or, if you’re a rabbit, a bulldozer. Even an old neighborhood can be torn up, a historical section of town, thus disrupting the lives of people. I recall an old Hispanic neighborhood in Phoenix that was cleared for airport expansion. I knew quite a few of the people there as a result of my work in social services in the area, and I was able to follow a few of them. Elderly women whose English was shaky might be thrown into a strange neighborhood and with no way to shop, and with restrictions she wasn’t used to.
Most movies dwell on the tragedy even though it’s clear a lot of people deracinate for some good reasons. Maybe it’s due to the ubiquity of farms but I always got so tired of the movies about the courageous people fighting the ravages of nature which were overtaking them. About as common were ones about the human locusts in the form of bankers and sheriffs who just did not understand that these “folks” needed to keep their land even though they couldn’t pay the taxes on it. As I remember, the only reason they were being foreclosed on and the farm put up at auction was that some shyster was cheating them. I liked those movies.
But if we think about the ones where nature was the threat, not humans, it might make us think further that if nature is what made these folks so folksy and courageous and just plumb nice, then the locusts and tornadoes and torrential rains were part of nature, too. So then maybe if we backtracked a little, we might find that the bankers might be villains, but do we stop at the folks? Well, no, because guess who we can go back to? Right. The Indians they took the land from and the slaves they brutalized to work the land.
I might be conflating The Good Earth with Gone With the Wind, but you get my point. If we pull on the thread, we might find it unravels far farther than we at first suspected. And then we can rebacktrack, i.e. forward track, and find that the banker wasn’t such a villain after all; that in fact the banker wanted the folks to pay their taxes so the county could put a road in that would benefit those poor farmers just past the folks’ farm who the folks were not allowing to cross their property to get their produce to the road and hence to town.
Hmmm. Back to that Chinese guy. What was he seeing in the distance? Ah, the Emperor’s troops accompanied by tax collectors. What would we fill our museums with if those emperors hadn’t collected the taxes with which to commission the beautiful art work? But how much dislocation, not to mention terror, occurred when those troops hit the local populace, and does that translate to or cause anomie, alienation, disconnectedness?
Is it nature or people that makes us feel connected? Or is it religion? Does the isolated, silent monk feel connected…… to God? To the infinite? To the Dharma? Or is it people and nature and the Infinite/the Tao/God/the Great Spirit/the Math Formula That Brings It All Together? That is, can we feel connected just with people or just with nature or just with a sense of religious awe?
To answer that we have to ask: connected to what? What does it mean to be connected (Guido and Vinnie are my best goombahs?). The beginnings are universal: the umbilical cord. Once out the chute, we head right for the tit (some of us still do). Then it’s the binkey and the blanky~blankie until we uncouple ourselves from the life-line…… or do we ever?
It seems not. The totally independent person, while an ideal of certain philosophies and life-views, is most unusual and in some people’s book, pathological. It says a lot about our culture that the alienated, isolated cowboy, a rootless (foot-loose) migrant worker, is our cultural icon, our ideal man (woman?). Huge numbers of films deal with just such “heroes”, be they cowboys, gangsters, businessmen, or seamen – they all have no ties. DeNiro’s character says you have to be able to walk away from anything at a moment’s notice and his antagonist, Pacino, is a similar character in Heat. We love the Pacinos, the de Niros, the Mitchums, the Eastwoods, all those guys. Great stuff but you’ve got to wonder. Normal people don’t live like that. Why are they our heroes?
The danger of laying out what makes a well-adjusted person, a connected person, is that we are telling people how to live. An awful lot of us come out of some pretty horrendous childhoods and even moderately horrendous childhoods deform us. We adapt as best we can, so who can tell us how to cope with the crippling distortions in our lives? They can warn us that alcohol and drugs are not good, but how about people devoted to their work b/c they find it difficult to connect to other people? Are we to force them into speed dating or arranged marriages?
So we have to let people adapt as best they can while offering as much help as we can in their attempt to lead a decent life. Part of that is to offer a model of a good life, or several models. What should those models include at a minimum and why? I might like the sound of good cooking as a sine qua non of the good life but it’s not. It is one possible element.
By the time you tot up all the possible features, you wind up either with a confused mess or a Norman Rockwell painting. All we can do is point to family, intellectual stimulation, artistic expression, friendship, physical activity, recreation and relaxation, and a good variety of other things that may go into making for a good life.
Why all this in my Basics category? Because the thrust of this whole blog is teaching well. We need to know what our students bring with them and do not bring with them and how this affects their learning. Most teachers grasp the principle that an empty stomach makes for a slow head but often fail to take that into account when assessing a student’s performance.
If we take into account that a good many of the basics we had as a species “growing up”, incl. diet, play, sex, family, shelter, exercise, spiritual practices, work, and so on, have been altered for all of us, not just students but teachers as well. We must take this into account when thinking about how our students learn, how we teach, and so forth. I will be more specific as I develop this Basics category of the blog.