But I have a nightmare to tell: I am trying to say
that to be with my people is my dearest wish
but that I also love strangers
that I crave separateness
– Yom Kippur 1984, Adrienne Rich
To me, these lines from Rich’s poem have always spoken about the intricacies of the relationships, belonging, identities, and their pursuit(s) we constantly find ourselves in. Forming connections remains central to fulfilling some of these pursuits. It then becomes incredibly important to unpack the ‘known and unknown’ of connection and its hold on us, in our lives.
Much like other things that are part of human lives, even such a thing as connections has been taught to us through societal teachings. This would mean that our understanding or experience of connections is situated within the normative(s) in the society and our struggles with it. Looking at the varied meanings that connections signify and seeing the links between them might be helpful in this unpacking. Instead of saying many things − I feel, it could be, − I pose them here as questions: Are connections mutual or one-sided; voluntary or coerced; are they simple or obscure; are they contractual, temporary, or do they remain forever and beyond?
Of course, such an unpacking would entail going beyond looking at the level of the individual and elaborating these meanings across the diversity of people and their varied locations, including their privileges or lack thereof. For example, do connections invoke a certain degree of capabilities or enhancement of certain skills to connect? It would then flag concerns around it operating within an ableist and resourcefulness framework.
Connection, to my mind, is one of those profoundly entrenched concepts manifesting itself throughout our lives. It is difficult to let go of. For example, in saying that ‘I do not feel the need to have connections’, or ‘I did not connect with this’, the concept of connections stays very much just the same. These examples merely point toward certain feelings inside of someone vis-à-vis specific situations, but they are not necessarily displacing or replacing the aspect of connections in that person’s life.
Even in its negation, it exists.
(To put it simply, the disconnect is not an end of the connection; it is a part of it)
The geographies of connections are much more universal than what is taught. We connect much beyond the normative walls of family and homes, and that includes our world(s) of work, spaces we inhabit in our everyday life, and environments, including the digital, virtual spaces, cinema, arts etc.
Needless to say, we connect over issues and ideologies.
Our intimate, private, and political lives are full of struggles, particularly for those who may be defying the set norms such as patriarchy, heterosexuality, and ableism, or the emerging complexities with majoritarianism, nationalism, etc. To struggle against power structures that are deeply invested in determining multiple aspects of our lives often reifies several boundaries and contestations in our daily interactions as well. We would be in denial to think that the larger politics of power around us do not affect our connections with others as much as we fully acknowledge the former’s control over our sexuality and expressions.
Unburdening is central to exploring our sexuality, privacy, bodily autonomy, and integrity. How we enable or support such taking off of these burdens with others becomes a site of action/engagement. For example, do we assess a connection or relationship in terms of it being a safe space, letting go of our fears, or minimising the relentless need to imagine the worst of scenarios?
Once we understand this, principles of consent and autonomy form a lucid account in the multiverses of these conversations. Any person ought not to be excluded from the world of connections, emotionally fulfilling and/or intimate relationships, for reasons of lacking resources or belonging to an identity that is being stigmatised or made marginalised. Recognising the agency of the person would be central to this process − without falling into the mush of identifying the ‘victims’ here. As much as the normative structures would like to have us believe that loss of connections or emotionally available relationships tends to be a concern in particular for people who are choosing to be single, or identifying as queer, or setting other priorities in life than what is socially expected of them, we need to challenge these spurious/false attempts of the hetero-normative, patriarchal and racialised normative(s) to get away with their agendas of controlling the narratives of people’s lives. An alternate narrative here critically engages with the human capabilities and multiple-intersecting ways of forming friendships, relationships, and kinships that do not necessarily get attention and recognition by the social, political, legal, and economic institutions that are in place in our society. An alternate narrative de-stigmatises, regardless. It also invests itself in dismantling the prejudices and stigmas held against and perpetuated for certain communities and identities in any given context so that the canvases of these connections also get further pushed for their diversity and inclusion, to include strangers in them as much as acquaintances.
Moreover, there may also be a dire need to reassign meanings for failures and despair (should they become an overwhelming experience) to make them more acceptable, simply to distinguish them from a defeatist stance.
The unwinding impacts of the recently witnessed pandemic contexts on people’s lives have flagged several concerns vis-à-vis isolation, physical distancing, and quarantine routines that were deemed necessary for caring for the self and others around us. As we continue reeling under these ‘newer’ conventions, a conversation such as this on connections and self with respect to others − both intimate and otherwise − becomes essential. However, the emerging solutions to these would have to be critically interrogated so that we are not ‘missing the woods for the trees’.
Let us be resolved in challenging the approach that conceives of ‘connections’ as enforceable. Instead, let us demand a world that centres on non-discrimination, equality, and fulfilling people’s basic human rights, including the rights of consent, autonomy, and integrity for all.
We cannot1 let institutions of social and political power define this problem in a way that often finds fault within individuals, offers solutions merely restricted to changes or behaviour at an individual level, or certainly risks pathologising the sense of loneliness, alienation, and situations of crying out for help. In doing all of this, such an approach that individualises the reasons for despair and loneliness subtly reinforces the regressive stances of the same normative(s) that are causing and exacerbating these struggles to begin with. Telling people to fit into the conventions of the world is something far too familiar for groups, communities and individuals who have challenged and struggled against these ‘normalised’ structures.
Our sense of connection must not be perverted with ideas of superiority over or prejudices about others, thinking that we are ‘helping’ others in reaching out to them or forging relationships. It is imperative that we understand the agency of all people as much as we would like to believe it is true for us. It is essential that we understand consent and respect the diversity of individuals and their varying, fluctuating needs as much as we do the same for ourselves. It is a process nonetheless, but a process that remains critical to unravel its own potential in the long term, if not in the immediate or short term.
There are enough references and anecdotal insights from the engagements built so far with the utopia of love, or romantic relationships, or even friendships. These engagements have met with many victories, as well as challenges, albeit not in a linear or exclusive sense. Conversations on sexuality have shown us ways to deepen our understanding of consent and helped us redefine it, our understanding of pain, pleasure, and the blurring yet distinct boundaries running alongside all of it. Overall, challenging any form of diktat, linear understanding (seeing any problem in a strict binary) has certainly emerged as an underlying attempt in all of this.
To conclude this probing, it is safe to say that we continue doing what we are within multiple, intersecting struggles. In doing so, we should also pause to set newer or renewed agendas of transformation(s) towards a certain affirmative world(s) – one that we seek out, or aspire to, or remain in pursuit of. Until we find that certainty or agreement, let us keep being curious, however, not in a way that is obsessed with seeking answers. Forming connections should let us frame and reframe their meanings within varied, diverse, expanded, and inclusive settings, allowing us possibilities to be closer, distant, and many more things.
1 The word ‘cannot’ is being used to emphasise/assert an action; and not in its literal meaning that invokes capability/possibility.