When I was pregnant with my second child, I read a simple line in a parenting book (Becky Bailey, Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline) that resonated with me:
"In any given moment, ask yourself, do you want to be special, or do you want to connect?"
As a child and adolescent, I had wanted to be special more than anything, and I was growing tired of it. More and more, I desired to make real connections. But I hadn't seen until then that specialness and connectedness are in tension, that to emphasize one is necessarily to de-emphasize the other, and that in any moment we have the opportunity to make the choice between them.
The book goes on to say:
Unity ... comes from letting go of the need to compare oneself to others, and choosing instead to connect through a sense of equality.
I understand that, and the implied tradeoffs, much better now.
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I like that it is phrased as a question, because it isn't as if connectedness is always to be prized over specialness; and there's a bit of a circularity to it, because one of the things that makes each person particular -- unique -- "special" -- is the particular combination of connections he has made.
One example: it's precisely because of my connections with my family members that I am irreplaceable to each of them. I am a particular person -- "Mom" -- to each of my children, the only mom they have, and my husband's only wife. Connection and "specialness" are bound up.
Another example: It's because of their unique connections with different "networks" that certain highly connected people hold together entire communities. Malcolm Gladwell writes about this topic in his book The Tipping Point. Are you familiar with the saying "six degrees of separation?" The idea that every person is connected to every other person on the globe by a chain of introduction ("I know someone who knows someone who knows someone...") that's on average only six people long? Many researchers, most famously Stephen Milgram, have attempted to measure interconnectedness through correspondence experiments. But it isn't just the length of the "chain," but the structure of connectedness of the whole, that is interesting. Gladwell writes:
The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts....Most of us don't have particularly broad and diverse groups of friends... In the six degrees of separation, not all degrees are equal.
Social connections aren't spread out evenly. They cluster: most of us have many connections within small groups that share lots of connections. But here and there are individuals who tie those clusters together -- people who have connections to many different clusters. By necessity, having many diverse connections mean that most of the connections aren't particularly strong. (Gladwell says that such "connectors" have "mastered what sociologists call the 'weak tie,' a friendly yet casual social connection. On Gladwell's web page is reprinted a brief excerpt,"The Connectors," that introduces the concept.) But even the most highly connected people probably have a few very strong, prized connections with a few select and dear friends. At least, that seems to be true about the connectors I know.
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Connectors wouldn't be connectors, wouldn't tie so many people together, if they weren't willing to be "special" in the sense that in each cluster they're the one person who stands out because, well, they know so many people outside the cluster. So their numerous weak ties aren't to be disparaged: they are extremely valuable.
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When I stepped back from most work other than directly meeting my family's needs, it was kind of like saying to the world: I'm going to focus my energy on building a few connections, and reinforcing them heavily, rather than on making numerous connections that, because numerous, can't be strong.
And that's what I do. I have the chance to carefully supervise the connections between each child and his siblings, between these children and a few close friends, between the children and my friends and my friends' children, between my friends' children and me. I have time to cultivate a few friendships of my own, too. The networks my kids and I move in are small but connection-dense.
I do it this way not because I think it's better to have fewer, stronger connections than to be "well-connected" -- although I am learning to prefer it -- but because I think it's the kind of connectivity I'm better suited to help build. I'm not worried that they won't be able to branch out more later. They have time to develop a connectivity that is their own, once out of my shadow; I'm doing it for myself now, after all, at age thirty-seven, so why not they?
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But on second thought, I am a sort of connector, too. I work to build the connections for my family in our small cluster, but the nature of being a parent is that you are a bridge to connect your family to the outside world: a gatekeeper, if you will. It's a small connection, but to those young people, it is an artery.
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There's another, virtual way of being a connector, and homeschooling is really the perfect outlet for it. Ever dealing better with ideas than with people, I like moving in multiple mental worlds, and enjoying the surprising connections between them. I like having a deep knowledge of engineering and also of homemaking. I like being a scientist (well, sort of) and a theist. I like being ridiculously unclassifiable on any political spectrum, which, I think, comes with the territory of examined Catholicism. I like the challenge of standing in the middle between two groups that are foreign to each other -- not because I refuse to commit to membership in or agreement with either group, but because I like to thoroughly understand the perspectives of both -- and attempting to translate. This is the kind of connection I like to make, and I think I am not bad at it, when I get the chance. (At least in writing. Never at parties.)
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I think maybe the level of connection one creates is part of one's vocation, and so unique; after all, connections create responsibilities, and fulfilling these is what vocation is all about. Perhaps those "connectors" among us, tying the clusters together with a mass of weak links, have a greater impact than the rest -- at least when they work to keep the links active. A greater responsibility, even? Maybe.
Here's a little story about the value of being multiply connected, and a lesson that no matter what kind of connectivity we enjoy, we always have the choice to reinforce those connections -- to send a little jolt of energy across a gap, so to speak -- and that when we do send that jolt along, it can travel quite far.
A couple of days ago I wrote about calling Poison Control from camp when my child got tree sap in her eye. I was happy because they exist and because they give good advice; in a different universe where PCC did not exist or was run by lawyers, my vacation would have been ruined. I believe I wrote something along the lines of "YAY POISON CONTROL. I wish I could send you cupcakes."
Now, I may not be a connector in this particular field, but:
- commenter/reader/three-dimensional contact ChristyP is, and she forwarded my blog post to
- a colleague who directs a poison control center in her state. The colleague forwarded the email to
- the managing director of my local poison control center, with whom she was apparently on a first-name basis. The managing director shared the story with
- the VP of professional and support services of the medical center that hosts the poison control center. And that vice president surprised
- "Dustin," the poison information provider who took my call, with
- a tray of cupcakes.
Count 'em, folks! Too bad I didn't ask for Champagne!
But what's really great about this is the reminder that, no matter how numerous or even how weak the connections we control may be, no matter whether they are between our own family members or across town, we often get a chance to pass a little something along. It may come to nothing, or it may "merely" make someone's day more interesting, or -- who knows? It could pay back far in the future. I think I will think of this story often when those little chances make themselves known.