I found this remarkable video last weekend courtesy of a Facebook friend. (Go ahead, watch–I’ll wait!)
The story goes that these two performance artists, Marina Abramovic and Ulay, had been lovers, and parted several decades ago. They didn’t see each other again until this exhibit in 2010 when Ulay turned up for his minute of attention from Marina. (Turns out the “story” is a little iffy—Ulay had been in touch several times and seen her earlier in the day, so the surprise was that he turned up in the queue, but not that he was around at all.)
The link to the video went to this page, where the comments, as you can see, range from people in tears to people correcting the misconceptions in the description of events to people accusing the whole thing of being fake, a setup, or just plain stupid.
Apparently not many people saw what I saw when I watched the video.
The elusiveness of connection
How often do you notice the people you’re with? I mean really notice them? Your friends, your family…those are easy. What about the cashier at the grocery store? Your pharmacist? Your next-door neighbor? We talk while we’re packing up the groceries or getting the mail, and we focus more on what we’re doing than we do on who we’re kinda-sorta-but-not-really interacting with. Can you even imagine spending one minute—just one minute—looking into the eyes of another person?
Most of us can’t do it. We’re so used to distracting ourselves, even from the people we love, and a minute of eye contact isn’t something you can multitask. That minute can feel like an hour. When I was in graduate school, there was a healing circle workshop that had us partner up and spend some time making this sort of eye contact with each other. Believe me, it’s hard.
Your first instinct is to laugh a little, because you feel uncomfortable. Then you decide to try harder, and you stifle the laugh as you try to pretend that you’re more comfortable than you are. You feel like someone’s staring into you, and like you’re doing the same to them. You wonder if that’s okay because you feel like you’re invading someone’s privacy, and yet you’re both there for the exercise, so it must be.
Connecting and Disconnecting
I think the point of the installation in the video is to force you to connect with someone this way for one minute. I think the table is there to give you a sense of distance, to mitigate that intense 60 seconds of really paying attention to someone else. And I think that we’re meant to realize how we take connection for granted, how we devalue it, and how we deprive ourselves of each other, and of really knowing ourselves, as a result.
The other thing I see in the video is the way that even eye contact for a solid minute doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not still hiding behind our personal walls. When Ulay sits down, you can see the emotions on Marina’s face. I would argue that she knows quite well how intense this sort of connection can be, and is fighting to hold herself in a safe place in spite of her connection with Ulay. And eventually, she can’t do it, and reaches out across the table.
Connection and Creativity
Brené Brown often says that “we’re hard-wired for connection.” None of us can live without it. We try, and some even succeed in living hermitic lives, but just based on my experiences of temporary hermit-dom, we lose something when we go for too long without other people. I notice that I start to become reluctant to leave the house if I haven’t been out for too long. (When I was teaching, I had to make a rule that, during the summers, I had to leave the house and interact with another person at least once a day. It was just too easy to hibernate in my own space, and even though I didn’t feel good if I did it for too long, it was hard to get back out.)
Without connection, we don’t laugh as much. We don’t remember that there are other souls out there who can enrich our lives—and that we can enrich theirs. And I have no data to back this up, but I am pretty sure that no connection = no joy (or at least an awful lot less of it). How can we come up with new ideas, much less put them into practice, if we disconnect from everything around us? We can’t.
Consider your connections. Consider how you interact with your world. Look into someone’s eyes for a minute, if you can, and see what you learn about yourself when you do.