My friend and colleague, Kristin Cobble, made her blogging debut a few weeks ago with a post entitled, “Living in Service of Life.” In it she asks and explores a simple question:
What does it mean to feel alive?
David Brooks, who’s been researching the neuroscience behind our social behavior, recently wrote a piece in the New Yorker where he summarized his research in story form. He tells the story of a (possibly fictional) neuroscientist, who says:
I guess I used to think of myself as a lone agent, who made certain choices and established certain alliances with colleagues and friends. Now, though, I see things differently. I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.
And though history has made us self-conscious in order to enhance our survival prospects, we still have deep impulses to erase the skull lines in our head and become immersed directly in the river. I’ve come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks. It happens sometimes when you are lost in a hard challenge, or when an artist or a craftsman becomes one with the brush or the tool. It happens sometimes while you’re playing sports, or listening to music or lost in a story, or to some people when they feel enveloped by God’s love. And it happens most when we connect with other people. I’ve come to think that happiness isn’t really produced by conscious accomplishments. Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities. Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year.
Far be it for me to argue with a (possibly fictional) neuroscientist!
I feel alive when I feel connected to life. By life, I include other people, other living systems, and me. I need all of those things in balance with each other.
Yesterday was Saturday, a gorgeous winter day in San Francisco, perfect for disconnecting. Ironically, I spent the morning on my computer, blogging about a very networked day in my life. Susannah Fox, whom I mentioned in my post, tweeted in response:
I’m touched by this, a feeling that may be enhanced by an opposite (but still great) day offline. Thank you.
It was a beautiful epilogue to my post. To truly appreciate the connectedness that is possible in today’s world, we have to re-learn how to stay connected to the other aspects of life and living that are so important. In other words, we have to remember to disconnect in all aspects of our life, including (especially?) our work.