Slices of bread – 7 Belonging

Being a further exerpt from my forthcoming book ‘Bread’ about how to simplify and refocus our lives.

(Placeholder cover: the real thing is yet to be revealed, even to me.

The story so far. Trauma makes you re-evaluate. When I did this, two things stood out as a uniquely life-giving and worth investment: belonging and creating. This section is about belonging. The hospital stories belong back in 2013, not anything more recent.


Bread

My search for what really matters – belonging

Crowds vs. networks

‘Belonging’ is one way of saying ‘being part of a network’. A network, as I mean it here, is a group of people linked by relationships.

Not all collections of people are networks. Here’s what aren’t networks: queues, crowds, traffic jams, flocks of tourists. Here are some examples of what are, or can become networks: a sports team, a squad of soldiers, an orchestra, a village fete, a live event when performers and crowd are feeding off each other, a classroom, a family.  All these can become sustaining communities that people love and fight for.

What’s the difference between a crowd and a network? Human relationships. Crowds that aren’t networks are life-draining; networks of people, working together, are life-sustaining.  I have been in traffic jams so profound that they turn into networks because drivers leave their vehicles and start talking with each other. A sports team can be transformed once it stops being a crowd of stars—or a crowd of mediocrities—and works as a networked, relational whole.

Networks let us pool and share our talents. They provide resources, guidance and self-worth. They protect us from external foes and, by setting norms, they save us from ourselves. And they satisfy our deep needs to belong and contribute. [1]

Networks and life-support

As well as being our superpower, networks are our source of meaning and life.

I have two scrapbooks in my study from my coma-month in May 2013. One was created by my family, one by the Intensive Care staff. They document what was going on with me in ICU, and in the world outside. My family have stuck in some of the cards and emails they received while I was ill. They also pasted news reports I might have liked. And they added in the letters they wrote to me.  I cannot read these books (or, it turns out, write about them) without the tears flowing.

They are so extraordinarily moving, almost intolerable, these scrapbooks. While I lay on my back plugged into medical machinery, a middle-aged, red-faced white man, the sort that you wouldn’t look twice at, heart disease fodder, my loved ones laboured under a burden of care and fear and fought my death like tigers. They read my books to me, they talked to me, they read Terry Pratchett novels. A doctor saw my mum mopping my brow and asked her why she was doing that. ‘He’s burning up,’ she told him. The doctor turned, walked away, visited the other ICU ward, and came back with an ice-blanket, the only one in the hospital and got me wrapped in it.

Each day, the ICU staff tenderly washed and shaved me.

Normally we moderate our expressions of love. Normally our loving hearts beat for each other under a coating of banter, criticism and everyday chat. Sometimes the coating is so thick we wonder if a heart beats under there at all. Death or near-death or the threat of death strips the coating away and we briefly feel the raging incandescence of human love. I think it is the greatest thing in the world. My coma-books are like me enjoying my own funeral without having to die: everybody’s kind to me and they don’t mention my faults. Their love also repaints my insides with sunshine.

Normally we moderate our expressions of love. Normally our loving hearts beat for each other under a coating of banter, criticism and everyday chat. Sometimes the coating is so thick we wonder if a heart beats under there at all. Death or near-death or the threat of death strips the coating away and we briefly feel the raging incandescence of human love.

A couple of weeks after I left ICU, but before I was finally discharged from hospital, my wife wheeled me round to the unit again. She was hoping to fill in some of the gaps in my memory. I was surprised to find that the nurses seemed to know me; I didn’t know any of them. My wife pointed things out. That was the room where the doctor told her that I wasn’t expected to survive the night. That nurse was the one assigned to me when I was hallucinating that it was our daughter’s wedding day, and I was trying to get out of bed, and almost weeping with frustration that I couldn’t …

I told this nurse from my wheelchair how sorry I was for causing all that bother, and I thought later how she was one of those people in the hospital who transcends treating you as a nurse only and treats you as a fellow human sufferer too. She wasn’t paid to care as much as she actually did care, and what a thing it is to find (as I often did in hospital) medical staff journeying well beyond professional expertise into deep humanity, caring for me.

It is overwhelming how important networks are to us. I don’t know how often you ask questions like, what have I achieved? What was the point? What am I proud of? Or even Why do I bother continuing to live? For me, the answer to all of that is being part of a network of people who apparently love me as much as I love them. Nothing else compares.  I’ve been a writer all my life but in all the millions of words I’ve sprayed about the place, happy though that has been, that career has not offered the quality of meaning or healing or worth that can compare with the simple discovery of being loved by my loved ones. The loving network trumps everything. 


[1] I’m indebted to Nicholas A Christakis and James H Fowler’s Connected (New York: Little, Brown 2009) for their insights. Theirs is the best book on networking that I’ve ever seen.

Slices of bread - 8 - doing something beautiful
Slices of bread - 6

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