The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

April 3, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: The Longing for Real Connection

I watched a quite disturbing and excellent documentary the other day, The Secrets of the Tribe, about anthropology’s use of one of the last first-contact tribes on Earth in the 1960s, the Yanomamo.  One of the anthropologists who studied and lived with the Yanomamo, Ken Good, married a Yanomamo woman, had 3 children with her and brought her back to the U.S.  She ended up leaving him and returning to her village in the Amazon rainforest.  In the documentary, he said she told him, in essence, she did not like living within the walls of the nuclear family.  She missed waking up in the morning and being able to see all her fellow villagers from her hammock.

Living in such a physically open and close-knit community is difficult to imagine.  I grew up in a little town, not an urban setting, and I’m actually a fan of the single family home.  I like at least a 5-foot-setback’s worth of elbow room from my neighbors.  Having been raised with a particular amount of space and privacy, I would probably find life in a small, open village about as intrusive as the Yanomamo emigrant found modern suburban American living isolating.

When I was a kid, I knew almost all our neighbors.  A couple of older sisters, who my mother knew, lived down the street from each other, and I would go to their houses for milk and cookies sometimes–and to sell my lastest extra-curricular activity fundraising wares.  I was friends with both the girls who were my age who lived around the corner from me.

My mother still lives in the area I grew up, which is where she grew up, and where many people she grew up with still live or have returned to live.  As a result, my mother has relationships with people spanning 65+ years.  Such long-lived relationships are almost as difficult for me to imagine as a view of my whole village from my hammock.  My mother is a member of probably one of the last sustained-contact tribes in the U.S.

I have lived in the same house in the Bay Area for almost 12 years.  Many of my neighbors have lived here as long or longer.  I know some of my neighbors well enough to wave at them or maybe chat about the weather when we both happen to be out in our front yards at the same time, which is not very often.  No one spends time in their front yards.

In numbers, I feel confident that I know a lot more people than my mother does, even though I have lived just over half as long as she.  Living in the Bay Area and working at a large private law firm in downtown San Francisco for almost 13 years, I have come into contact with a lot of people.  (And that is not even counting grade school, high school (half spent in southeastern Louisiana and half spent in north central Louisiana), college in New York State, a 3-year interlude in Phoenix, and law school–the start of my now 16-year-long stint in the Bay Area.)  But the number of people I know really well is a handful, and the number of people I will have known for 65+ years will be zero.

I was not raised in a world where relationships were actual market commodities.  But I have worked in that world, and I think that world’s net is ever-expanding.  A recent independent film that satirizes this phenomenon is The Joneses, with David Duchovny and Demi Moore.  It wasn’t ever in line for an Oscar, but it is worth seeing.  It is an appeal for authentic human connection in an age where everything is about the sale.  It is ironic to watch Demi Moore, with her clearly plasticized (albeit still lovely) features, carry a movie with this message.

I have hated marketizing my relationships, to the extent I have managed to.  I don’t long for a return to the Edenic life of a small village without walls, but I do want to build relationships with people because they make me laugh or say insightful things or share my same quirky interests or just because.  And now I know I’m not alone in this longing, because someone has made a movie about it.

copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson


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