When I was in high school a friend told me her family subscribed to different magazines, including Time, which she read religiously. She explained that she did it because it was helpful as a conversation aid to know what was happening in the world. As an introvert and someone that struggled to make small talk, I decided to follow her example, and became a subscriber of Time magazine. For the next five years I read each magazine from front to back every week. Now, I recognise that this story is a perfect, albeit misguided, example of how I tried to find different ways of fitting in and feeling connected, because I certainly wasn’t interested in American politics or economics.
I did not enjoy my 12 years at school. I was unfamiliar with feelings of connection, belonging, and acceptance in my home environment, and so when I first went to school I was subconsciously expecting the same feelings to be present there. Despite having siblings, I didn’t know how to feel connected with the other children. When we experience disconnection or rejection in one context, we often tend to project those expectations into other unrelated contexts. Even though the other children may have tried to connect with me, I wasn’t able to recognise it and so kept myself isolated – continuing on the detour to disconnection.
In part 1 of this series, I shared some brief insights on particular events of my childhood that led me on a detour to disconnection. In this post, the journey back to connection continues into my twenties and my experiences of school and university.
At the heart of feeling connected is a sense of knowing, a knowing’ness if you will, that’s not to be equated with certainty and control. Instead the grasp on that knowing’ness, that feeling of connection, is tenuous, and the more you try to force it the slippier it gets. So when your outer life is in disarray it becomes even more challenging to connect to that inner knowing, because your inner resources are focused on trying to create a feeling of safety and security by attempting to establish control and certainty. Note, it is possible to create order in your outer life by first working with intention to create a sense of safety and security to reconnect with your inner self.
Suffice it to say that during my time at school and university my outer life was in disarray and characterised by uncertainty; this exacerbated the sense of disconnection in my inner life. As I reflect on that time, the following factors in my outer life stand out:
- Before I was 21, my family moved 17 times, including countries, provinces, towns, and houses.
- I went to four different primary schools, but was fortunate to only go to one high school.
- I moved between multiple different friend groups trying to find where I fit in best, especially in high school.
- In Matric (Grade 12), I experienced, with hindsight, the early stages of burnout, and had to quit a couple of extra-curricular activities to be able to continue performing academically.
- Initially, there was no money available for me to study at university, so while friends from school went to campus I first tried long-distance studying and then a college diploma before I eventually could go to university.
- During my second year of university I had to move out of home, find my own place and work three jobs to pay rent and fees. This was because my mom had re-met and was going to get married to the man she had been dating when she met my father at university. Their relationship ended a couple of months later.
Perhaps the most tangible proof of my disconnection was how many times I changed direction with my studies. I looked at the diverse array of my interests and talents and couldn’t conceive of how to choose one path. First, I started off studying psychology through Unisa and completed my first year. But, I didn’t enjoy the long-distance aspect when all my friends were having fun on campus. Next, I completed a one-year diploma in desktop publishing, as well as a diploma in photography. I finally got my chance to experience campus-life when I completed a BA degree in Journalism and Visual communication. During the third-year we were required to make a short documentary film, and I fell in love with film’s potential to tell people’s stories. Accordingly, I immediately applied to do an Honours degree in documentary film. Even though I performed relatively well academically, I never felt confident in pursuing a career in any of the fields that I qualified in, and so never settled into a clear path.
The year after I completed my Honours degree, I went to the UK on a two-year working-holiday visa and worked in the service industry. While I was there, I applied to a University in London to complete my Masters in film and was accepted. I returned to South Africa to apply for funding, but had to defer attendance for one year. During that year I briefly worked in the film industry, and at first loved it, but was quickly disillusioned by the egos at the top. After being wrongfully fired, I won my case at the CCMA and decided the film industry wasn’t for me after all. I researched various different fields that aligned with my history in journalism and documentary film, and felt that social anthropology felt like a good fit.
What drew me to social anthropology was its drive to understand people, their stories, and motivations. I’m fascinated by people even though I’m the biggest introvert. To achieve this understanding about people, anthropologists use a method called “participant observation”. Normally, the terms ‘participant’ and ‘observer’ refer to mutually exclusive statuses. Yet anthropologists using participant observation aspire to bring the two together and participate from an observable distance. This is usually achieved in the form of “fieldwork”, which refers to a period of time spent, and often living, amongst the group of people the anthropologist is studying.
Ironically, my research proposal’s expressed goal was to understand ‘belonging’. I proposed that ‘belonging’ amongst a set of people, as complicit in any understanding of social and cultural interpretations of relations between humans, has been taken for granted by anthropologists. Reading an anthropological text one finds the word ‘belonging’ often used indiscriminately, without due care to describe what ‘belonging’ actually may look, sound, smell, feel or be like. Some subtle ways in which this taken-for-granted notion of ‘belonging’ manifests include assumptions that people belong, and it is thus not questioned; or that it is naturalized by assigning denominators of belonging such as ‘citizenship’, ‘nationalism’, ‘community’, ‘family’, ‘kin’, ‘gender’, and so forth. Furthermore, it is often legitimized by anthropologists claiming that particular sets of people self-identify as specified denominations or categories. Finally, ‘belonging’ is often indicated by describing how some people do not belong – and built on an assumption that, by referring to a negative and excluding some, those who remain on the positive side do ‘belong’. I had sensed that being able to describe ‘belonging’ might be possible in an intentional community – a set of people with a common intent and commitment, usually toward a lifestyle often considered ‘utopian’, harmonious, and/or sustainable – and I thus chose one as my field research site.
Six months later, I would end up moving and living there for the next seven years. In my next blog post, I will share more about the first glimpses of a connected life that I experienced there, but how ultimately my time there was also revealed as a detour to disconnection.