NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Connection” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome.
Copyright 2012 David J. Bookbinder
I am a person with a big heart and a deep need to be connected, but I grew up alienated and insulated from others and from myself. The arc of my life has been to move from disconnection to increasing connectedness, both internally and externally. In my experience, you can’t have one without the other.
I am what I now understand to be a “highly sensitive person” – someone who takes in, on both a sensory and emotional level, more than the majority of people do. There are a lot of us – some 20% of the population, according to Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person and originator of the term. It’s a blessing and a curse. We can’t screen much out, but we have more data to process. It’s how we’re wired.
In the 50s, of course, nothing was known of highly sensitive people. As a child I was a stranger in the strange land of my family, my neighborhood, and the schools I attended. The noisy, gregarious world around me was too much, and it frequently informed me that I was “too sensitive” and “too shy.” I retreated into another, more manageable one.
With the launch of Sputnik, the first Soviet satellite, I was attracted first to space, and then more generally to science. In my bedroom I had posters of all the Soviet and American rockets and satellites, charts of the missions we and the Russians had run, with the Russians always having the edge no matter how NASA tried to spin it. I was part of the generation of children who were not going to let the Russians beat us. When I grew up I would become a rocket scientist and, if I was lucky, an astronaut as well.
Pursuing rocket science was a long way off when I was 7. In the meantime, throughout elementary school, I became increasingly preoccupied with the workings of both the natural world and human technology – rocks, fossils, magnets, chemistry, microbiology, electronics, model rocketry, explosives – and with the possibilities of finding other sentient life, either out in space or here on Earth, through cybernetics.
By age 10, I was also consuming vast amounts of science fiction. I would come home every week with my bicycle basket filled to the brim with library books and haunt the paperback rack of the local drug store, seeking the latest ACE and Bantam Books releases. I was most attracted to robots, who, Pinnochio-like, struggled to transcend their non-human limitations, and with mutants and superheroes, whose powers at first made them outcasts but later, sometimes, allowed them to be saviors of humanity. The arc of outcast to savior appealed both to my shattered self-esteem and my deep desire to have my perceived deficiencies reconceived as gifts.
Connection was so difficult for me that most of the time I didn’t attempt it. My relationship with my siblings and parents was superficial. For the most part, I kept out of the way, hidden in my basement laboratory or, after one experiment choked my father with chlorine gas, out in the garage. My relationship with the few neighborhood and school friends I had was largely limited to our common interests in comic books, chemistry, and science fiction.
I remained in this largely isolated/insulated state through my first year in high school. At that time, a move from my childhood home a mile and a half away launched a process of expansion that changed everything.
In this new context, I came out of invisibility. I awoke to the Vietnam War and become a high school radical, collaborating with some of my fellow co-conspirators on a left-wing magazine we called Cynic. I discovered love and sex. I applied to Cornell University in engineering, but by the time I left for Ithaca I had been to Woodstock and knew deep down that I did not want to be a NASA engineer anymore.
I spent the next decade discovering the more human, less analytical parts of myself, and filling in the gaps. At Cornell, I thrived in English, psychology, and writing classes and did just enough to get by in math and science. I turned on to marijuana and LSD, radical politics and Eastern religious practices, protest songs and rock and roll. I transferred to the University at Buffalo, where I could more easily roll my own major in English, psychology, and alternative education. I volunteered at a mental hospital and worked for a parent-run free school. I learned how to start conversations and make people laugh. I hitchhiked across the U.S. and back through Canada because I knew this trip would force me to connect with people, if only to find somewhere to crash for the night.
After college I drifted and landed, eventually, in Manhattan, where the internal/external connection process continued. I revisited teaching, first at a place called the Hudson Guild, working with children and woodworking, and then at the Brooklyn Museum in a drop-in art program for kids. I became a reporter and photographer for small Manhattan newspapers to trick myself into contact and connection. The microphone and notepad forced me to connect, while the camera gave me somewhere to retreat to, a place to hide behind when connecting was too intense. For the next two decades, I vacillated between the inward-connecting but isolating activity of writing and the outward-reaching but anxiety-provoking activity of teaching, seeking a balance.
My near-death experience took connecting to a new level. Afterwards, I found that many of the left-brain things I had excelled at my whole life were now difficult, while right-brain versions rose up to replace them. I could no longer intuit my way into a machine, but I was able to keenly and directly experience the feelings of others, and often to know what they were going to say minutes before they said it.
Parallel to all this seeking, I engaged in a spiritual quest, experimenting more deeply with the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff, Buddhism, Sufism, and working for years with two psychotherapists. Here, too, my efforts were at forming a more meaningful connection with my unknown self and with others. The whole struggle for connection came to a conclusion when I returned to school once more to become a psychotherapist myself.
Though one friend once referred to me as “jumping around like a cockroach,” until I became a therapist, I see my history, instead, as a process of seeking and growing into who I am, and finding increasingly purposeful ways to connect, with the hope of leaving my species somewhat better for my having resided on it than it would have been had I not.
Now, as a therapist, I find I connect easily with a wide range of people, differing in age, educational background, culture, religion, and types of problems that brought them into therapy. I see that my clients, too, are frequently seeking the same dual connection with themselves and others that I have been working at all my life. And often, I can help them along that path, leading by example, assuring them that they can get there, too.