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Unplug and "Look after each other"

In the early hours of Tuesday morning July 13th, a tragic attack in Nottingham on several members of our community left three people dead and several injured. At the vigil the following day, the parents of two of the dead - two 19-year-old students - reminded the community in attendance: "Look after each other". Today I want to dedicate this column to these words and how we can look out for each other and our fellow community members.

I remember my student days. It is not the articles or books I read, the essays I wrote and the grades I earned that make me look back with a smile, but the interactions I had, the people I met, the life stories of the people I encountered, the sorrows, joys, hopes and ideas we shared over the course of a few years.

It can be easier to feel part of a community when there is an organisational body around it, such as a university, a sports club, a company, a religious assembly, an association of any kind or a family unit. Outside of it, it can sometimes be difficult to feel a deep sense of belonging.

Increasing isolation, loneliness, disconnection and disorientation are symptoms within our society. I see it in myself. And I see it in my work and in the struggles often shared by my clients. The reasons for this are manifold. One of the reasons is something we do very often nowadays: we unplug from the world around us.

While I rarely remember a social life without access to smart technology, such as smartphones, laptops, tablets and iPads, I still feel disoriented by their vast presence. In public spaces, on buses, on tubes, in parks, even in restaurants, cafes and at home, we often miss opportunities to connect and really be with each other. Just a few days ago, I was sitting on a train, in close proximity to all these colourful people with their colourful life stories, sharing this unique journey together. Now, what could have been an intimate and connecting experience actually felt more isolating than sitting on an empty train. It looked like we were all together, but in reality we were alone together. We were all sitting alone, avoiding each other, plugged into our own world, focused on our music or podcasts, staring at our little screen in front of us.

I was wondering while sitting there, why is it so comforting to disappear into solitude by listening to music and looking out the window instead of making contact with the person next to me, in front of me, behind me. Why do we do that? Why do we unplug so regularly from the social world around us by plugging into the little device in our pocket? Why does it make more sense to us to talk through a tiny chat window with people who are not even online nor thinking of us in that very moment, instead of connecting with people who are right next to us in the same space and moment? What is it that feels so intimidating about reaching out and initiating a conversation, a connection, a shared experience?

These questions are for the both of us; for your and me. While I actively try to be more accessible for the social community around me to make contact, it's still not my default behaviour. I have to actively remind myself to turn off my music and remove my headphones to connect to the social world around me. I don't always feel like doing that. I really enjoy contemplating landscapes with good music resonating in my ears. However, I want to try more. Only then will I be able to care for you more, and isn't that what it's all about?

As citizens of the world, we are automatically part of a larger community. We automatically belong. And not only that. As citizens of a country, a city, a town, a village, a neighborhood, a shared house, a friendship circle, we automatically belong to an even more specific, smaller community. It is right there. Yet, all too often, we don't see it or are afraid to see it because of many small and large fears of not fitting in. That's a shame because that then means that we are all just waiting for each other to reach out and initiate connection and belonging. Even if you have mastered independence and feel very comfortable on your own, you still need us and we still need you. Even if you don't say it. Even if we don't say it. We need each other.

Tragically, it is often the experience of (vicarious) trauma and deep pain that encourages us to grow and to do things differently. Now, I am a great believer in post-traumatic growth, and I encourage you, my dear community and fellow citizens of the world, to grow closer together. In bright times, and even more so in dark times. This week, my Nottingham community is grieving the loss of 3 community members. I want to acknowledge that. Me too, I am part of this community. And I want to actively remind myself to be a more dedicated community member. Today, I want to remind us to use our ears to listen to one another, our mouths to talk to one another, our feet to walk alongside one another, our arms to embrace one another and our hearts to support one another.

My thoughts and love are with the family of the late Ian, Grace and Barnaby and with you, their community... our community.

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