In the wake of the senseless murders in Orlando, Florida, USA and in Batley, Yorkshire, UK this week (June 2016), some thoughts on how society has lost some vital connection, as I write my book on Social Health Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in the Age of Overload.
“He had nothing to do and nowhere to go. He had no friends. Nobody cared about him. Neither did he” – The Unknown Citizen, Tony Parker
“Can you let me in a little bit, just a little?” The person asking the question has neat features in a strong face which has lived eight decades. She is Naomi Feil, a German-born American-raised social worker. She has a steady gaze and voice and bright eyes, and is leaning towards another woman in her eighties whose eyes are closed, her face slack and silent. “When people are old and deteriorated and no-one speaks to them they will withdraw more and more” says Feil of her work. “Then the desperate need for connection is all now inside”.
Naomi Feil is talking to Gladys Wilson who lives in a facility for elderly people with dementia who are labelled ‘non verbal’. She us using the method she has devised, called Validation, to bring ‘communication through empathy’ to ‘step into their shoes’ for cognitively impaired individuals. The work is startling in both its intensity and its effect. Gladys is rocking her hands with an unfocused movement.You can see the institutional blue plastic of a chair peeking through a pretty crochet blanket which is full of soft pastels: pinks, soft green, yellow. The purple in the blanket picks up the colour of Gladys’ jacket under a crisp white shirt, but everything else about her has no colour, and is crumpled and sad. “Are you crying?” asks Naomi gently. “I can see a tear.”
Gladys and Naomi are of similar age and look like they might have had similar strong features when young: clear clean skin – white for Naomi and caramel for Gladys, and beautiful expressive lips. Naomi talks firmly and softly to Gladys but it isn’t her words which you notice. It is her hands. They are gently touching Gladys just by her ears, stroking the sides of her face. “every cell remembers this is how they were touched as an infant by their mother” she says. Her face is level with Gladys’ and perhaps fifteen inches away. “You’re very sad” says Naomi. “Can you open your eyes just a little and see me?”. The eyes, which are wilted with inner neglect, open a tiny peep and look out. They meet Naomi’s steady gaze and immediately Gladys’ hands start to slap the arms of her chair. At the same moment, Naomi starts to sing. “Jesus loves me, yes I know. For the Bible tells me so”.
Gladys’ hands start to thump the chair more strongly, so Naomi raises her voices and sings the Christian hymn louder and faster. She calls this direct mirroring behavior ‘exquisite listening’. At this moment both women are locked in an identical communication with each other. All disparity has disappeared. They are fully connected in this moment.
Naomi now leans right in. Her nose is nearly touching that of Gladys, their strong aquiline features a reflection of each other, a symmetry. Then Naomi changes song. “He’s got the whole world, in his hands, he’s got the whole wide world….” She sings and she pauses a tiny beat, knowing instinctively what will happen. Gladys, half blind, mute woman incarcerated by isolation finishes the chorus and softly whispers “in his hands” back at Naomi.
“Do you feel safe?” asks Naomi gently, still holding her face, still looking close as can be into her eyes. Then she states it. “You feel safe”. Gladys says a word. Her mouth opens wide, her remaining two teeth shine white as her shirt and she speaks, probably for the first time in many, many years. “Yeah” she says quietly.
What drives the human being more than anything, what arguably lifted and drove us from the swamp to the skyscraper in 100,000 short years started with the tools of fire and cooking pots and grew with the ability to communicate through stories and language, through touch and tenderness. We are social souls. We advanced our tools of civilisation with cooking, culture, cities and faith to leapfrog over our evolutionary competitors. Modern civilisation relies on a set of increasingly sophisticated systems but we only need one outcome: to preserve this essential social DNA.
All human behaviour puts connection at its centre, with the exception of the people we call ‘inhuman’ – the handful of psychopaths and sociopaths devoid of sufficient empathy to function as we do, and to place connection at the centre of everything.
Were the murderers of scores of innocent people and a much-respected public servant psychopaths or sociopaths? Or did they live amongst us, undetected, disconnected? To paraphrase Arthur Miller: Are they All Our Sons?
 Tony Parker, The Unknown Citizen xxx