December 1st, 2015

Constructing the world together

The first time I realized that none of us sees the world in quite the same way I was just a kid riding in the back of the car with my aunt driving and my mother sitting in the passenger seat.
In the way of small children before the days of seat belts, bored with adult company and itching to be out playing, I was lying on my back with my feet up against the front seat, watching the tops of telephone poles gliding by the side window.

Suddenly it occurred to me that I was the only one in the car seeing that particular view. I might have even thought that I was the only one in the world seeing those sights at that moment in exactly that way. The three of us were taking the same ride from the store to our house but we each saw those miles in a way that was unique.

This realization was probably the beginning or at least a time of consolidation of my sense of identity as a person separate and distinct from others.

The Irish writer John Banville in his novel “The Blue Guitar,” has his protagonist, a thief and artist, comment that one of the things he dreads most about dying is the thought that after he is gone there will be no one here to register the world in exactly the same way he does.

He has no illusions, the author tells us, that his particular view of the world is especially significant in the grand scheme of things but he laments that it will be lost forever.

These ideas will not be new to psychologists or to anyone genuinely curious about people. They may even drive our universal human love of stories. When we tell our own stories or listen to the stories of others, we are really comparing worlds and enlarging our view of the space we inhabit together.

This thought became very clear to me at my recent 50th high school reunion and during the preceding year when my classmates began re-connecting on a private Facebook page.

This opportunity to trade perspectives on a shared significant life experience and to fill one another in on what we have been doing since is just one of the many reasons I have always liked reunions.

We were a bunch of kids from working class families whose parents sent us to a small, co-ed, parochial high school for a good education with a strong moral component based on our shared religious faith.

The campus consisted of two city blocks containing three classroom buildings, a convent and a church. One of the classroom buildings held the gym that routinely filled to standing room only when our championship basketball team took the floor.

It also housed the cafeteria and the storeroom where we sought safety behind bags of Pillsbury’s Best flour during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. Just a sophomore at the time, I didn’t think any of us would live to graduate.

Our private online reunion page opened the door to a community of old and new friends. There were people I remembered well from high school and had seen periodically through the years as well as classmates with whom I never even had a conversation.

None of that mattered so much as the fact that we had all shared a special time in our lives in a special place. For an only child like me, it was like coming home to a big family I never had. Everyone was warm, friendly, and accepting.

The lines that naturally divide classmates by grades, looks, athletic ability, interests, where you lived and who your friends were, all of these were long gone. All that remained was a community of people of good will who had started out in the same place and gone on to live diverse and interesting lives.

We were teachers, nurses, truck drivers, construction managers, a lawyer, a doctor or two, financial service professionals, executives, secretaries, artists, supervisors and assorted health workers.

We had thrived in good times and bad. We had survived divorces, deaths of loved ones, job loss, and every kind of disease. Some of us were still fighting to regain our health. Eighteen of us had lost the battle. They can no longer tell their stories but we pieced together what we could, sharing a memory here and there and leaving the larger work to the friends and family who knew them best.

Sometimes in my more expansive moments, I think we are all constructing the world one jigsaw puzzle piece at a time. Each of us has a section of the puzzle that only makes sense when it is joined to the whole.

My classmates and I started out in the same place but even that place, like the car I rode in with my mother and aunt, was different for each of us. Most of us at the reunion shared positive memories but others reminded us of a darker side to those years that we had to confront as well.

After graduation we lived through the same historical events but each in his own unique way. The Vietnam War looks very different from the safety of a college classroom than from the front lines as a combat infantryman. This is why we need to share our stories not just with old classmates but also with one another across as wide a spectrum as we can. Only then will the pieces of the puzzle start falling into place and the big picture begin to appear.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D.  is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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