Although obvious, it’s easy to forget that connection is meaningful and important. This includes connections that are brief or have to end for some reason and so isn’t the sole property of those special lifelong connections. This is also not exclusive to people you’ve met in real life (IRL). The connections we make on the internet matter because (for the most part) those are real people we’re interacting with and we mutually impact each other through our connection. This importance doesn’t mean that we can’t create boundaries, or disconnect when we need to, but that the conditions and structure of connection are such that it is both rare and meaningful to see yourself in another and be seen by them even in small amounts.
Connection is hard because it is, by the very nature of the brains and languages we are constrained by, difficult in general to communicate effectively. Likely the majority of what we experience of reality is impossible to fully be grasped by another human because of the various subtleties of our subjectivity. An example of this is our way of using a word and its connotations in our mind versus another’s persons of the very same word. This could be terrifying and sad, but rather it explains how much more powerful it is to be seen or understood to any extent by another human.
It’s radical because our sense of isolation and despair, or even shame, can be completely debilitating. Trust is hard enough to build in our modern world of creeping real and imagined surveillance. When we connect with someone, and begin to share the types of common experience that naturally build trust, we are able to share more of ourselves which allows us to connect more deeply. The more connected we are, the more able we are to make ethical trouble, learn together, and generally feel that we’re not flying through this blink of terrifiying life alone.
I’m not describing a static kind of connection either. Relationships should change as our connections themselves change. Within ourselves is a dense network of connections that represent our approximate notion of self. This includes the connections between neurons, emotions, memories, or influences crashing around in the mind that is our bodies. Then between another person and ourselves we experience all the different dynamic ways that we are connected. Shared memories are a kind of connection but those memories can fade or we can have different understandings of what transpired. In a sense, shared memories are kind of the heart of life. Shared values can be another type of connection between people. This too can change as we learn more about each other and see each other in different types of situations. We could decide we hate someone we once loved and then no longer continue to make memories together but yet still be connected through the memories that already passed. Alternatively, we can realize that we get along great with someone we used to not like and a much deeper connection can emerge. This means we can associate or dissociate with other people according to various factors but nonetheless, the connections we made impacted us in small or life-changing ways, and to the extent that life matters at all, those little changes and impacts are a huge part of who we are as individuals and networks.
I discuss the ways that connections can deteriorate only because it can be easy for humans to chase a good feeling and try to continue rebuilding a connection even if it is harmful to one or any number of the hosts. The fear of loss and change can determine the way we bond but so can our judgements. If we read the wrong way into the surface of what we think of a person, we can misunderstand the context that would come from knowing them more intimately. It’s a delicate line of course. You never really know someone from only the way they are on the surface, but also you don’t actually want or need to get close to everyone (nor is it possible!).
Because what we know about the world around us is also inherently limited, we need the lenses of others to be able to see the things we don’t know that we don’t know. The wisdom of others help us fill in the gaps of what we know. This includes emotional experiences. Therapy or a trusted friend can make all the difference in being able to deeply process and grow through the complexity of something. Just the act of holding space for someone to freely and openly process or asking critical or open questions to help them parse can help us to overcome how bogged down we can get trying to make sense of a situation or a trauma alone. Further, people can see our goals and our dreams and help us to figure out how to make them happen. This all means that connection can literally give us more freedom because it can help us to have a more accurate map of the situation and open us to new possibilities we hadn’t considered. Conversely, when a relationship becomes toxic it can constrain our ability to act in practical ways such as all the time we spend buried in processing that could’ve been spent doing things more conducive to our higher and more positive goals. Both toxic and enriching connections draw us together and most relationships are a mix of good and bad but only relationships that lean sufficiently towards ‘enriching’ are able to expand our freedom.
These expansions of freedom translate to a wide range of radicalism, from the ability to organize and perform effective activism, to just recognizing the value of our survival and value at a deeply emotional level. So we should leave when it’s time to leave, but that silly little karaoke night, or tagging your friend in a meme you know they like, is part of a larger process of not just finding joy and meaning then (important of themselves) but also of expanding our agency in practical ways in the real world. Connection can be the social capital denied to those unable to aaccumulate it themselves, but it can also be our super wholesome support networks. Our friends matter even if friendship itself can be a dangerously static notion if abused. They help us not just to survive but to better confront the wicked realities of life and attempt to cultivate imagined possibilities into our interconnected lives.