Origins of Connections
It was announced last week that university researchers have launched the UK’s largest study on the health benefits of community groups and organisations. Led by academics at Glasgow Caledonian University, researchers across the country will look at the public health benefits provided by a wide range of community-led organisations and activities such as: walking groups; cookery lessons; language classes; community gardens and cafes. It’s great to see such an ambitious research project underway, but it does make you wonder what has happened to us as a human race, that we need research to tell us what we knew intuitively was good for us, centuries and centuries ago.
During the pandemic, many of us were dependent on our neighbours for help when we needed to isolate. That chat over the garden fence, or the Facebook community group helped us to keep going during those periods of lockdown. The value of having connected relationships is certainly not new; indeed the survival of the human race has been dependent on how well we can collaborate and help each other.
Many ancient tribes thrive by keeping members of their community connected. In his book ‘What happened to you? – Conversations on trauma, resilience and healing’ Dr Bruce Perry talks of visiting a Maori community who have a concept of Whanaungatanga, which translates as close connection between people. Whanaungatanga is about relationship, kinship and a sense of family connection. It is created through shared experiences and working together and provides people with a sense of belonging. It comes with rights and obligations, which serve to strengthen each member of that whānau or group.
When Dr Perry tried to find out how the tribe handled more challenging aspects of life, such as depression, sleep problems, drug abuse and trauma, they suggested that these problems were all basically the same thing; the problems were all inter connected. Pain, distress and dysfunction come from some form of fragmentation, disconnection and desynchrony. So Whanaungatanga helped to build connection and initiate the healing process through community activities like games, traditions and storytelling. We might now describe these actions as opportunities to co-regulate.
The need for connection is part of being human, yet in our modern society we have perhaps unintentionally developed relational poverty. Some argue that this relational poverty comes from thinking that we can buy our way to a good life, rather than be a producer of it. What I mean by this, is that we have become consumers of services, which in turn has resulted in having expectations of what organisations can do for us, rather than what we can do for each other. This is important, because it’s in the doing things with each other that we foster those vital relationships.
Our Western interpretation of Whanaungatanga will of course look different to the Maori community, but perhaps that’s why we need to better understand the importance of community-led activities such as: walking groups; cookery lessons; language classes; community gardens and cafes, that Glasgow Caledonian University are researching. Just maybe those community activities are helping us to reconnect with our tribe.