Give and take

Imagine you are at the airport, waiting for your boarding to begin.

We all know this feeling - the crowd of strangers, sharing the same room and the same reality, doing mostly nothing, except for avoiding eye contact and trying not to connect to each other. The reason for avoiding connection is practical: everybody you connect with has a certain degree of power over you. They earn a tiny portion of your heart. It's much harder not to care about somebody you smiled at or have been together with, compared to somebody who is a complete stranger.

There may very well be a good biological reason for not connecting: humans have evolved to live in small groups of up to 100-150 people or so. Everything above that number creates an overload. So we have to find a way of coping, and filtering is an easy way out.

Let's get back to our airport gate though. Imagine somebody from the crowd faints momentarily. People around that person rush to help. Somebody calls for the doctor to come. Through this shared reality, shared need, and a sense of shared responsibility - connection arises. The group of those closely involved - is no longer a group of complete strangers. They are united by the common experience they have just had.

If you think about it, their shared experience is only slightly more intense than the shared experience they were having a minute before: a shared experience of sitting in the same room, waiting for the same plane. Yet somehow when emotional intensity passed a certain threshold, it made a big difference: we all now belong to a temporary group.

On one end, you are more vulnerable now since you care for the other people. On the other hand you are more safe, since they care for you. In fact it is by choosing to care for people and things that you invite them to choose to care for you as well.

In the case of fainting, the phase change in the state of the group was created by an exposed vulnerability - and then, even more importantly, by accepting help. When one person needed and accepted help and others gave it, the emotional exchange turned a crowd into a group. There is now a "debt", a difference of potentials that charges the group and creates structure where there was none. The group is now polarized, charged, it is alive. This happens in very much the same way as the difference in electric potentials or concentration of chemicals can create energy, and ultimately conditions for life itself to arise.

It is interesting to notice that emotional ties and total energy of the group is directly related to the intensity of their shared experience: connections that arise from extremely intense experiences (for example, enduring life-threatening situations or somebody giving birth) are very likely to survive beyond the short life-span of the circumstances that put the group together in the first place. In other words, if we are likely to connect with others in the face of danger, may be connecting is more of a good thing, than a bad thing after all? May be giving away a share of our heart to strangers makes us stronger, not weaker?

Going back to the airport once again, I want to point out that a group can emerge not just through a "debt", but through a "gift" as well. Instead of fainting, one person in can take out her guitar and start playing music - then she puts a gift out there for the group to enjoy. She creates the commons for the group to unite around. The most critical person in this process is not her though. The critical person is the first one to explicitly start listening, tapping and singing along. By accepting and taking her gift, the first receiver signals to the rest of the crowd that in fact, the community has already been formed. It's much easier now for others to join in.

Whether the original connection was initiated by the "giver" or the "receiver", once the crowd has joined into the shared reality - they are now together. The powerful charge in the form of emotional "debt" has been created. From now on the group can grow its potential or let it fade. When the charge is passed from one person to another - it grows, and with it the potential of the whole group. As soon as the charge stops moving through the group - it starts to fade, until there is none left. Then, homogenized and discharged, the temporary group ends its lifecycle.

Belonging to too many strangers is hard. Shutting yourself down is easy. But I think we need a better way of coping with emotional overload. Filtering connections out, putting the people physically around you outside your circle of empathy does not make you stronger. It makes you less human, less alive.

When you were born, you received the gift of life, whether you like it or not. In this sense, you are in debt by the very fact of being alive. This debt can never be repaid. You can't settle it down, and you don't need to. It is a true gift and so it was given to you with no expectations of repayment. You can choose to waste it, hide it away. You can choose to discharge the potential that it created. Or you can choose to accept it, take responsibility, handle it with care and pass it on.

And by taking it, appreciating it and passing it on - you will grow it. Even if you didn't like the gift in the first place, even if you didn't always enjoy it thoroughly, you now have a chance to add a little bit of your own soul to it and pass on something bigger and better than what you received.

Don't waste this chance.

Read More:

  • Lewis Hyde

  • Jill Bolte Taylor

  • Viktor Frankl