I’m lying on a gorgeous sunny beach, with a view of crystal clear waters, palm trees and parasols.
The air is hot, the atmosphere calm, lazy and indulgent. My husband and I are sinking into our first do-nothing-all-day-beach-holiday for the first time since our honeymoon, 17 years before. Without the children, and it is blissful. And there are tears pouring down my cheeks as I struggle to explain to my husband what’s going on. The words won’t come out. I am choked with emotion. My throat hurts and my heart is aching.
I don’t cry a whole lot. Sometimes I do, but throughout my life most of my emotional pain has manifested itself as anger, frustration, disappointment and disillusion, rather than sadness. Even when I was struggling with depression I didn’t cry because that would involve some sense of self-compassion and acknowledgment that I was in pain, when the reality in my head told me that I was the problem, that I wasn’t strong enough or consistent enough or anything enough. You can’t really cry for yourself at the same time as hating yourself.
Nowadays I probably cry more than I’ve ever cried, whilst also being the happiest I’ve ever been, because sometimes I feel hurt and I can acknowledge that with compassion now, rather than with admonitions of ‘well you should have done this instead,’ or ‘what’s wrong with you?’
I also cry for a reason other than sadness. I cry when I feel overwhelmingly connected to humanity in all it’s messy, beautiful, glorious aliveness. That’s why I was crying on the beach that day last September. I was reading Brené Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. Her chapter Hold Hands. With Strangers is all about our inextricable human connection, and it touched me deeply as she described scenes where she had experienced this.
She felt this deep emotional connection while at a Garth Brooks concert with her sisters singing their hearts out to the soundtrack of their childhood. Even I feel teary writing this and I can’t remember ever having heard a Garth Brooks song. But I know that feeling. I had it around midnight on my hen night when we were on a very crowded dance floor at the Astoria dancing to The Final Countdown and I thought to myself ‘It doesn’t get better than this!‘
I experienced it at our great friend’s wedding 18 months ago when we all pogo danced to Smells Like Teen Spirit in a bouncing circle with our arms around each other and all our children joining in. Men and women, old friends, new faces, the next generation, all witness to the joy and love in those four and a half minutes of memories, aliveness and human togetherness. The connection is pure joy. Thinking about it now brings tears to my eyes and a smile to my lips. This is the essence of humanity.
Brené felt it when watching a YouTube video of Liverpool fans singing You’ll Never Walk Alone. This gets me every single time I hear it despite growing up in the 80s when Liverpool were winning everything and I hated them with a teenage passion just because they were so annoyingly good at winning. But I still choke up when I hear that song. It means nothing to me, but my throat constricts and tears prick my eyes because of the sense of human connection it evokes. The song itself didn’t mean anything to Brené either but simply witnessing the power of that human connection for others makes it meaningful for us because we know that feeling too.
SHARING THE GOOD AND THE BAD
We also feel this human connection in times of pain and tragedy – although it can be more difficult for us and many of us shy away from it, thinking it will be too hard. Brené recounts her experience when all the cars around her on a four-lane highway in Houston crawled to a halt when the Challenger shuttle exploded in 1986, such was the shock and grief of a community intricately linked with NASA. And when she got together with other mothers after the Sandy Hook shooting, sharing the pain together, they didn’t really know why they were coming together, but acknowledging, feeling and sharing the pain of other mothers who had lost their babies somehow felt helpful. We experienced similar human responses and feelings of connection during and after the tragedies of 9/11, the London bombings and the Manchester Arena attack.
I felt this human connection again this week as I read about the trapped boys in Thailand. The pride I felt for those children – who I do not know – coping with such a frightening experience came from this human connection. The heart-aching, tear-inducing feelings of love I had for those Navy Seals and cave experts – who I do not know, who I have not even seen pictures of – who devised and carried out the extraordinary rescue operation must come from this connection to a shared humanity.
We also feel this connection within the social rituals or events we are involved in. Brené feels it when she goes to her local football games, and when she goes to church. My husband and I enjoyed this when saw Mo Farah win his 5000m gold medal at the Olympic Stadium in 2012. Whenever I try to explain what it was like I choke on my words and feel embarrassed at how emotional I get at this powerful memory. Actually, now I think about it I spend the whole two weeks of every Olympics on the verge of tears due to the glorious humanness on display. When I go to my children’s school plays and church services, this feeling of togetherness and community arises spontaneously, as we celebrate the virtues and strengths, the vulnerabilities and the courage of our human condition.
WE STILL BELIEVE
Which brings me to what is really prompting me to write this now, this week. It wasn’t the Thai rescue, as captivating and eventually joyful as that was. It was the song that my football-mad son has been playing in the car for the last 5 days. It’s the song that makes me well-up and try to pretend it doesn’t affect me. It’s the song that I’ve danced to at weddings, and on drunken nights in the Curtains Up pub in West Kensington, with the gay abandon that is only possible with a heart full of joy. It’s the song that brings back a lifetime of memories of being part of something bigger.
This song connects me to all the other people who have watched the England football team over the years, (inspite of or perhaps because of, my attempts to shut off my attachment over the years because it hurts so much). We are connected in the pain of Southgate’s saved penalty, of Campbell’s disallowed goal, of Gazza’s tears, Beckham’s red card and the Hand of God. We all know the meaning behind Pearce’s roar and Lineker’s eyes and together shared the joy of Owen’s beautiful goal, Beckham’s free-kick in the 93rd minute after a matchful of failed attempts, and the relief that comes with a ‘should-have-been-easier’ win. We know the dashed hopes, the elation of hope reborn, the aliveness of feeling…and this song brings it all back. Obvioiusly the ups and downs of football are not nearly as serious as other ups and downs of life, but these moments can still create meaning and connection in our lives in an important way.
“In both the good and the bad times we can savour these moments of connection because that is what it means to be human.”
So, there it is. I admit it. I am brought to tears whenever I hear Three Lions because I feel connected to other people, to complete strangers, through our inextricable human bond. I feel our human spirit in the essence of the memories and emotions it taps into. Yes, life can be shit, and hard and tragic at times, but it can also be wonderful in the least expected moments. In both the good and the bad times we can savour these moments of connection because that is what it means to be human.
It might just be me and Brené…but I don’t think it is. We are all human. We all feel this. So I suppose the question is…how could we encourage more of this connection in our lives in these times of disconnection and discord?