A New Core Anchor for a Different Voice: Connection

A New Core Anchor for a Different Voice: Connection

I am not idealizing life on the reservation; there are tremendous problems including poverty and pervasive addiction, to name a few. However, on the reservation I also experienced the deep community connections and a sense of responsibility the tribespeople had to one another that I do not often experience in the United States. When I returned from Canada, I had similar feelings to those I experience when returning from the third world; I feel overwhelmed by the vast wealth and material comforts available in the United States, but soon feel a simultaneous sense of despair and emptiness. I rapidly become aware of a spiritual vacuum and a lack of connection between people. I observe the road rage and notice that people are often pushy, unhelpful and treat each other rudely. Soon, I notice I put on a sort of emotional armor. I am more tense, angry, feel less valued and am more critical of others. I am happy to have plumbing that works, but is a toilet that flushes more valuable than a loving community? Do we have to choose? Is there a way to have both?

A group of thirteen middle and upper-middle class women in Southern California shared their experiences in the book, “The Necklace” (Jarvis, 2008) of how they transformed their lives by together buying a $15,000 diamond necklace and sharing it. One woman saw the necklace in a store and desired it, but knew that for her, spending $15,000 on a piece of jewelry was out of the question. She thought, “what if I pool my money with some others and we share it?”. Her idea was that each woman would wear the necklace for a month and when that month was up, would pass it along to the next woman. She found twelve other women who wanted to go in with her on the purchase. At first, the shared feeling for the co-owners was desire for the necklace, but then that ownership raised other provocative questions in the group. Why are personal luxuries so plentiful for some yet inaccessible to others? What happens when we share what we desire? What happens when a symbol of exclusivity becomes a symbol of inclusivity? (Jarvis, 2008, p. 17).

The owners of the necklace began to meet once a month to negotiate the transactions. Eventually, these meetings became dinners and a strong group bond formed, a community. The group came up with humorous ideas, like competitions for the most outrageous outing for the necklace, which they named “Jewelia”. One woman wore Jewelia skydiving, another on a motorcycle trip, another while having sex with her husband, butt-naked except for the necklace and another on a trip to the gynecologist (who eventually joined the group as well)! The friendships between the women became more intimate. There were some conflicts, but the group contained them and worked them through. No one left the inner circle, in fact, the circle expanded. As the women’s group became safer and more cohesive, the group began to share the necklace more freely with others.

At first, daughters of group members were permitted to wear Jewelia in their weddings. The next evolution was that the group auctioned the necklace off as a prize to be worn for a day to the winner, the proceeds to benefit various organizations and charities. The group took Jewelia to nursing homes and public events where people were allowed to wear the necklace free of charge. The necklace became a symbol of inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness. What struck me in this story was that Jewelia became less important to the women than the deepening bonds of their friendships; the more closely they connected, the less the material value of the necklace mattered. Instead, the women experienced its true value as being the ways in which the necklace could benefit others, and that the sharing of it had facilitated their rich friendships. Stated one of the thirteen, “As a group, we’re so much more powerful than we are as individuals.” (Jarvis, 2008, p. 207.) Stated another “Sharing really is the way to happiness.” (Jarvis, 2008, p. 206.) Said a third, “My life was family and work for a very long time. And everything revolved around work.

I knew it wasn’t the most important thing, but I acted as if it were. Work became a habit, and it was enough…with these women I can let all of that go. The day I know I’m going to a Jewelia meeting that night, the work goes faster, easier. I move with a lighter step. Now I’m always asking, ‘When is the next meeting?’ I had so much fun the night I hosted the group. That was the first time I’d entertained in years, and the first time in my life I wasn’t nervous about having guests. I didn’t want the women to leave. Sharing myself and my house with them made me feel peaceful, made me feel complete. Going to the meetings was the beginning of my saying ‘Yes.’ ‘Yes’ to showing up. ‘Yes’ to reaching out.” (Jarvis, 2008, pp. 54-55.)

As Jean Baker Miller writes in her acclaimed and revolutionary book “Toward a New Psychology of Women” (1986):

Male society, by depriving women of the right to its major ‘bounty’—that is, development according to the male model—overlooks the fact that women’s development is proceeding, but on another basis. One central feature is that women stay with, build on, and develop in a context of connections with others. Indeed, women’s sense of self becomes very much organized around being able to make and then to maintain affiliations and relationships, Eventually, for many women the threat of disruption of connection is perceived not as just a loss of a relationship but as something close to a total loss of self.” (Miller, 1986, p. 83)

Women have a very different approach to living and functioning than the traditional western male approach. In it, “affiliation is valued as highly as, or more highly than, self-enhancement. Moreover, it allows for the emergence of the truth: that for everyone—men as well as women—individual development proceeds only by means of connection.” (Miller, p. 83)

For some women, this may mean a connection to a partner, particularly a male partner; that any accomplishment would not be worthwhile unless there was a man to make it so. That was certainly true for my own mother. Although she rose to the top of her profession and was the first female United States Magistrate in the State of California, she felt her life was meaningless until she secured the love of my step-father, at age 65. I do not share that feeling in terms of having a male partner, although it is true for me that without close friendships or community, my life does not feel meaningful. I love my husband and children and want them to be in my community, but without close friendships, including my relationships with my siblings, my life would feel meaningless.

Continues Miller:

Our only hope, both women and men, really lies in us placing our faith in others, “in the context of being a social being, related to other human beings, in their hands as well as one’s own. Women learn very young they must rest primarily on this faith…Men’s only hope lies in affiliation, too, but for them it can seem an impediment, a loss, a danger, or at least second best. By contrast, affiliations, relationships, make women feel deeply satisfied, fulfilled, ‘successful’, free to go on to other things. (Miller, 1986, p. 85.)

In his expose “Friendship”, Joseph Epstein writes that

. . . .although the experiences were fleeting, being part of a community was enormously satisfying. The feeling is one of belonging. You look at the others seated around the fire and feel with equal confidence that you would do almost anything for these people, as they would do almost anything for you. As a member of a community, you feel you have lost yourself, however temporarily, in something larger, of which you are nonetheless an important part. To be part of a true community is to experience collective friendship, with the associated feelings of mutuality and reciprocity that are normally available only between two people. It’s a grand, grand feeling, and all the grander for its rarity. (Epstein, 2006, pp. 164-165.)

Miller notes

Whereas men, too, have deep yearnings for affiliation, their needs are deep under the surface of social appearance…As soon as they grow up in the male mold, they are led to cast out this faith, even to condemn it in themselves, and build their lives on something else. And they are rewarded for doing so.” (Miller, 1986, p. 87.) She continues, “Practically everyone now bemoans Western man’s sense of alienation, lack of community and inability to find ways of organizing society for human ends. We have reached the end of the road that is built on the set of traits held out for male identity—advance at any cost, pay the price, drive out all competitors and kill them if necessary…It now seems. clear we have arrived at a point from which we must seek a basis of faith in connection—and not only faith, but recognition that it is a requirement for the existence of human beings. The basis for what seem the absolutely essential next steps in Western history, if we care to survive, is already available.” (Miller, 1986, p. 88)


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About the Author

Suzanne Brennan NathanDr. Suzanne Brennan Nathan is a clinical psychologist, clinical social worker and group psychotherapist recognized as a clinician, program developer and instructor in the treatment of trauma and addictions. For forty years, she has practiced psychotherapy in Boston and Newton, MA. Currently in full-time private practice, Dr. Brennan Nathan has been the clinical director of several group practices specializing in the treatment of addictions. Suzanne has been on the clinical faculty at numerous social work schools in the Boston area, including Smith College, Boston University, Simmons College and Boston College. She was the founding director of the Family Crisis Team (Child Sexual Abuse Team) at The Cambridge Hospital and was a Lecturer on Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She divides her time between Boston and Northern California.

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