Connections

Understanding Connections

When I was young I wanted to do well in life, but I was missing a vital concept that many successful people seemed to intuitively understand: I did not realize that certain people were especially important in my life, and it was absolutely necessary that I meet these people and have a good relationship with them if I wanted to succeed in that area of my life.  If I met these people my life would go well, but if I did not meet them or did not maintain a good relationship with them, my life would not go well – at least not in that area.

The socially adept writers and directors of Hollywood movies understood this concept.   In the “Star Wars” movie, Luke Skywalker is lonely and unhappy on a desolate planet.  He wants his life to be full of adventure and excitement, but nothing ever happens to him besides taking care of his family’s farm.  It was only when Obi-Wan Kenobi showed up and took Luke off his home planet that his life got significantly better.  If Obi-Wan Kenobi had never shown up, Luke would have spent the rest of his life being a moisture farmer on that forsaken planet.  Instead Luke went on to an exciting life, saving the galaxy from the evil empire.  Mr. Kenobi (if that is the correct title to call a Jedi master – the movie does not make this clear) introduces Luke to a whole new life.

Luke’s case is a particularly dramatic example of the concept that I am talking about.  Other movies reveal this same concept with much less drama.  In the movie “The Summer of ‘42,” a fifteen year old boy is on vacation on Nantucket Island.  He delivers groceries to a woman whose husband is a fighter pilot in World War II.  One night the woman finds out that her husband has just died in the war.  That night she is lonely and sad; to escape her loneliness she takes comfort being with the teenage boy, including having sex with him.

Through situations like that, a teenager learns valuable skills that help him in his next romantic encounter.  It is not just that his current life has changed, his future life has changed too because now he has skills to help him successfully navigate a sexual relationship.  If he had not met this woman, he would never have learned those skills or built his confidence, and he would have had a much harder time doing well in another romantic or sexual encounter.

In the original “The Karate Kid,” the new boy in town is being bullied by the local ruffians.  He makes friends with his neighbor, who unknown to him, is a karate master.  Eventually his neighbor teaches him karate, and he learns discipline and how to defend himself against the bullies.

All of these movie characters were meeting people who helped them make the next move in their lives.  These special people gave skills or confidence or opened up whole new worlds (literally in the case of the “Star Wars” movie).

In some cases, their whole life had changed (as with Luke Skywalker), in other cases it might just be one area of their life.  So in “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” his students learned how to play music from the gifted teacher.  Or it might just be one night that went from being boring to being a wild party at the Animal House.

After I started understanding this idea from movies, I realized the writers of popular novels understood it too.   In Les Miserables, the main character was sent to prison in nineteenth century France for stealing bread to feed his starving sister.  He served nineteen years and then was released with papers identifying him as a criminal.  Life was very hard for him until he met a saintly bishop who gave him enough silver to start his life over.

In The Count of Monte Cristo, the hero is in prison after being framed in nineteenth century France.  In prison he meets a political prisoner who educates him.  This man also tells the hero where a magnificent treasure is buried.  With this treasure, the hero starts a new life.

In Oliver Twist, poor orphaned Oliver is having trouble getting enough food and surviving.  Then in London he meets some people who help him.  Unknown to him, these people are thieves who want him to join their band.  Fortunately for him, he is saved by a very kindly gentleman the band tries to steal from.

After seeing these things in movies and novels, I realized the same concept was involved in the lives of historical people I had heard about.

William Wilberforce was an extremely popular and rich politician in eighteenth century England when he decided to go on a tour of the European continent.  There were no iPods during that time, so to amuse himself he invited a poor friend to entertain him on the trip.  This friend was an intelligent scientist and a good conversationalist.  Unknown to Wilberforce, he was also an evangelical Christian.  While they were bored in France, they started a conversation about a popular Christian book and by the end of the trip, Wilberforce had converted to heartfelt Christianity.  He devoted the rest of his life to infusing Christianity into politics, most notably fighting to outlaw slavery in the British Empire.

Hernando Cortez invaded the Mexican peninsula in 1519.  He had only a small Spanish army of 500 men against the powerful Aztec empire which had millions of subjects.  Luckily for him, he met a shipwrecked Spaniard and a native woman who knew the local languages.  With their help, Cortez was able to convince some local cities who were unhappy with Aztec rule to fight with him.  While disease was important in his victories, it was only with the help of these two interpreters and the thousands of local fighters that he was able to defeat the Aztecs.

Albert Einstein had developed some of his basic ideas behind the theory of general relativity, but he did not have the math to express it.  Without this mathematical knowledge, he did not have science.  Luckily for him, his former classmate, Marcel Grossmann, knew about non-Euclidean geometries.  Grossmann introduced Einstein to these ideas and to other mathematicians who helped Einstein transform his intuitions into rigorous mathematical formulas.  Without Grossmann, or someone like him, Einstein would never have succeeded in developing his theory.

These movies, novels and historical people helped me to understand an important concept that I was sure a lot of other people found obvious, but I had missed: some people in our lives are simply a lot more vital to us than other people.  Einstein needed someone to tell him about certain kinds of math and to help him learn it; otherwise, he would never have fully developed his theories.  If Cortez had never gotten the help of the local Indian woman and the local Indian kingdoms, he would never have conquered the Aztecs.  William Wilberforce would have been just another rich Englishman.  Worst of all, Luke Skywalker would never have gotten off that godforsaken planet and saved the galaxy from the Evil Empire!

If we want to do well in life, we need to meet the people that are special to us and relate well to them.  Movies, novels and the historical people I mentioned are particularly dramatic examples of this phenomenon.  After all, we are entertained by movies or novels because they condense a story and highlight the most engaging parts of it.   And we remember Wilberforce, Cortez and Einstein because they were special.  But basically all of us have examples of the same phenomena in our lives, although they are most likely not as dramatic or intense as in movies or novels.

On the most basic level, someone had to give us food and shelter when we were young and helpless.  This someone may not have been a loving parent, it may even have been a wolf like the one who suckled Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome.  Without this wolf, a person or a group of people, we would not have survived.

If we were lucky, we met more people who helped us in other ways.  We met someone who taught us about romance and sex.  We met someone on a summer vacation and she introduced us to some fun activity we never knew about before.  In college we met people who introduced us to new music and new ways of looking at things.  We met someone who helped us succeed at a job.  If we were really lucky, we got married to someone.

These special people could be our parents and could stay around our whole lives helping us.  They could have been our coach at little league helping us for a season.  They could have been a one night stand showing us the basics of giving pleasure to another person.  They could be a stranger we meet for a few minutes at an airport telling us about the new restaurant we should be sure to visit.  But all of them are more important to us than other people.  You need to connect with these people and connect with them well if you want to have a full, happy life.

I call these important people connections because we have some special connection to them.  They give us what we need in our life or in one area of our life.  They give us what makes our life exciting and full in some important way.

I do not mean to imply that only people can be connections. A lot of other things can be connections too.  For example, animals can be connections.  Many people’s closest friend is their dog.  And what would Roy Rogers be without his horse Trigger? Or Hans Solo without his hairy friend Chewbacca?

Places can be a connection too.  Personally, my house is my refuge.  And for many people, they are deeply related to the land they were born on.  In the movie “Gone with the Wind,” the lead female character was deeply connected to her plantation, Tara.

Activities can be connections too. A lonely kid can make a connection by reading a book that fills her life with joy for a day or longer.  Many smart kids’ childhoods were saved by discovering another world in reading books.  Or someone can discover a musical instrument that they love to play. This instrument can then lead them to other people and activities.  Or she can do math and find the joy of numbers.

An organization can be a connection too. A person can be lonely till they join the Masons or their local church.

A subculture can be a connection.  My next door neighbor had a young daughter who was alienated from all the happy, conventional people she called “the herd” until she discovered the Goths and found out that she was not the only person alienated from mainstream culture.  While she now scares her mom (and sometimes even her teachers) with her interesting clothes, she is not alone anymore.

A car can be your connection.  It does not have to be as nifty as the Bat mobile, it can be one your grandfather gave you or even the lamest one in the school parking lot.  Or it could be a gun, your special cooking pot or your favorite knitting needles.

Finally, let’s not forget some peoples’ most important connection: a drug.  It could be your heart medicine to keep your blood pressure down, your Viagra to keep your thing up, or your Prozac or Panama Red to mellow you out.

Obviously I am including many different things under the concept of connections.  From an outsider’s perspective, these things may seem to have no relationship with each other.  But from your own perspective, all of these things make your life, or one area of it, better.  It also takes the same sensitivity to recognize them and do well with them. If your judgment is clouded over in a certain area, you will not just have troubles with one kind of connection, but will also miss them in some other areas.  Improving your sensitivity with one area will also make it easier to do well with other, seemingly unrelated connections.

I have been talking so far about making your connections and doing well with them.  While meeting your connections makes your life good, if you do not make or maintain connections then things get worse.

While discussing making connections is uplifting, discussing missing connections is sad.  It is sometimes so sad I cry, and so I will only give a few examples of this phenomenon.

The Everly Brothers were on top of the musical world with many wonderful songs such “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake up Little Suzie.”  Then they had a disagreement with their management company and switched to a new manager.  Unfortunately for them and their fans, their songwriters were managed by their old company and were not allowed to write songs for them anymore.  Even worse, they themselves were under contract as songwriters to their old management firm and so they could not even write their own songs.  When their disagreement with their old management company was finally resolved three years later, the Beatles had come to America and the music business had changed radically.  They never had another big hit.

In one made for TV movie I was watching when I first discovered this concept, there was a sad character who did not do well in his life.  For some reason, he did not connect with the person who could have helped him and because of this, things fell out of joint in his life.  He was not able to be in a good place at a good time and so things were always out of sync for him.  He did not have the money he needed and he did not develop a relationship with a girl who was interested in him.  From the movie character’s perspective, he had no idea why things were so out of kilter and why he felt so lost with very little good happening to him.  He could not see the connections he had missed.  But someone watching the movie could see what he had missed, why he had missed them, and how missing them directly led to his problems.

Many people, when they miss their connections, know something is wrong in their life.  But they have no idea why.  They often blame God and wonder why God does not give them a decent life.  But God or fate is generally not the problem; it is usually that we are not making our connections.  A spiritual way of looking at the problem is that God works through our connections.

Many self-help books say that if you try hard enough and persistently follow your dreams, you can be sure you will succeed.  Tony Robbins, in his book Unlimited Power, says, “You know that if you’re committed to success, you’ll create it.” Robbins also says that if you learn the positive techniques he teaches “You can learn what to ask of life, and you can be sure to get it.”

I am not trying to denigrate the importance of believing in your dream and persistent effort, but these qualities are only part of the story.  Another, often neglected, part of the story is that people need to make their connections.  Persistent effort and belief are not enough to fulfill your dream, you also needs help from other people or things in order to succeed.

The great scientist George Washington Carver, one of the best-known African- American heroes, illustrates this point.  In 1890, he arrived at Simpson College in Iowa.  At this time, he was the only black person at the college, and maybe the only black person at any white college in the state.  He wanted to study art, but he was very poor and art was thought to be a very bad career choice for a colored person as he needed money to make a living.  He was advised not to even try to take an art class, but he liked art and believed he could do it (his works would eventually be exhibited at the Chicago’s World Fair).  He asked the art professor, Miss Etta Budd, to let him in the class for two weeks and see if he had any talent.  Budd said she thought the whole thing was disgraceful as colored people should not be taking art classes, but he was stubborn, and she let him in.

Carver was at the time living in an old, abandoned shack not far from campus.  The president of the college had said he would tell the white students to send him their laundry so he could make money.  Unfortunately, the president of the college had forgotten to make the announcement and no one brought him any laundry.  After paying for college expenses, he had only ten cents left for food.  He would not accept charity so he got hungrier and hungrier.

His art teacher was impressed with his talent and let him stay in her art class.  Then she got other people to help him, and he got better accommodations.  Students also brought him their laundry to do, and so he made some money.  While Carver was very good at painting, Miss Budd was really worried about how to get him a job after college.  She talked with him about this and again told him art was not a practical career choice for him.   She felt that in order for him to be successful, he had to follow a natural bent.  As they talked things out together, he decided to pursue agricultural science.  Miss Budd’s father was a professor at Iowa State Agricultural College, and it was decided Carver should go there.  At Iowa State, Carver made a close connection with Miss Budd’s father and three future Secretaries of Agriculture.  This tremendously helped him to develop into one of America’s best agricultural scientists.

George Washington Carver had lots of drive, persistence, talent and character.  But all of those alone were not enough to succeed.  He also needed the help of Miss Budd.  If he had never met her and been helped by her, he probably would have had to drop out of college.  He would almost assuredly have not gone into agricultural science and met such important mentors.

While George Washington Carver is not a story of rags to riches (he was a scientist who did not take out patents on his inventions as he wanted them to benefit everyone); Andrew Carnegie is one of the best-known stories of this genre.  In the nineteenth century he went from being extremely poor to one of the richest people in the world.  He then gave most of his money to charity and devoted his energy to international peace (the Carnegie Endowment for Peace is named for him).

Carnegie’s life is often held up as a model success story that we all can aspire to.  But no one would ever have heard of him if he had not been able to emigrate from poverty-stricken Scotland to America.  It was his smarts, charisma and great business sense that made him rich, but he would never have succeeded unless he was in the land of opportunity.  When he was a teenager, his family did not have enough money to take the boat to America.  The family could never have gotten there if his mother’s best friend, Ailie Fargee , had not loaned the family money. Andrew Carnegie’s life is an inspiring success story, but he needed to have Ailie Fargee help his family.  (His story is also full of many other people who helped him along the way.)  The Carnegie family needed help from its connection to come to America; otherwise, he would probably have been a failure in Scotland no matter how hard he worked or how much he held on to his dream.  In fact, he would probably have never had the dream to become rich; it would have satisfied him just to have a job that paid enough to eat.

Americans like to tell stories of people who go from rags to riches, which are often called Horatio Alger stories.  They are called this as Horatio Alger was a popular nineteenth century writer who wrote novels about characters that rose from poverty to wealth.  Nowadays it is thought these characters pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.  So through their hard work and persistence, these characters supposedly became model American success stories.  But if you go back and read the original Horatio Alger novels, they were about people who worked hard and were moral, but they only really succeeded because they made their connections.  So in the best known of these novels, Ragged Dick, the hero works hard and is good, but he does not really succeed until he saves a rich kid from drowning.  Then the rich kid’s father is impressed with the story’s hero and helps him tremendously to succeed.   Without this rich person’s help, the hero of the story would never have risen above an average lifestyle.

So while hard work is often needed, and persistently holding onto your goal despite incredible obstacles may be necessary, the writers of self-help books are missing the importance of making your connections.  Getting motivated and inspired are not enough.  No matter how motivated Andrew Carnegie was, if his family had not had a connection to get to America, he would not have become rich.  If George Washington Carver had not met Etta Budd and had her help, he would never have became a great scientist.  You can hold on to your dreams forever and work hard at them, but unless you make your connections, you are unlikely to succeed.

We seem to be given certain connections in our lives.  Some people say that is God’s plan for our life.  Other people say that we karmically attract situations and events to us because of our deeds in previous lifetimes.  Some people say we choose a life plan before we were born, and thus attract things to us that fulfill this life plan.  Others say it is destiny or fate.  I really do not understand why we are connected to some things and not others or why some people seem to have better connections than others.  But I have spent the last thirty years learning how to recognize my connections, learning how to do better with them, learning how to learn from my past mistakes and not continually repeating them, and learning how to deal with the times when my connections were not giving me what I seemed to need from them.  From this learning process, I developed many skills you can apply in your own life – skills that can help you make your connections, and so make your life significantly better.

These skills will not immediately make your life wonderful.  Nor will they bring you all your heart’s desires.  But what these skills can do is help you make the best of the connections you have or will potentially have in this lifetime.  It will not give you a perfect world, but it will help you achieve the best possible life that you can.

The great American writer Ernest Hemingway wrote that “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Because for a long time I did not understand the concept of connections, it often felt like the world was breaking me.  I often felt lost, confused, hopeless or adrift.  The world did not make sense, and I had no idea why.  And it wasn’t like I was a total loser.  Many people liked me; I went to an Ivy League college; I had a wife and kids.  But I also suffered terribly because I missed many important connections.

My pain forced me to develop skills at making connections that I otherwise would never have to develop if I was just naturally good at making them.  So I have become strong at the broken places.  I have written this book in the hopes that you will not get broken by the world through missing your connections.  Or if you have already suffered by missing them or messing them up, you too will become strong at your broken places.

After this book is written, I am hoping to get it published.  It would be helpful if you tell me any questions you may have or any parts that you have found helpful.  If you have sections that you do not understand or you think are stupid or misguided, I would very much appreciate if you tell me.  It is much better to hear these comments now, when I can easily change things, then later, after I have published a book.  I will reflectively consider your concerns and, if warranted, I will change things to incorporate your concerns into the book. You can email me at  waligore@yahoo.com.  Please put “About Connections,” into the subject heading of the email.

This book was written by Joseph Waligore with the help of Michelle Stage.  Joseph   teaches philosophy and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. More information about him can be found at his MySpace profile or his Facebook profile.  Michelle works in a bank in St. Paul, Minnesota as a learning consultant and in a Minneapolis night club as a dominatrix.

This website is one of four websites I have.  Another one, www.followingtheflow.com is for spiritually oriented people and discusses very similar ideas from a more spiritually oriented perspective.  Another one, www.josephwaligore.com is for academically or intellectually oriented people.  It has my writings about spiritual philosophies such as Stoicism, Socrates, the Deists, the Enlightenment period, and the rise of modern science.  Another one, www.spiritualcritiques.com, has critiques of many popular spiritual teachers and spiritual teachings.  It looks at teachers like Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, Ken Wilber, and Pema Chodron.  It also looks at teachings like “All is One,”  “The Hundredth Monkey,” and “If it Rings True, it is True.”

There is a Facebook group called Flowing.  People interested in meeting other people who are interested in these ideas and/or participating in discussions about these ideas are invited to join the group.

Many people reach this site through keyword advertisements.  It might be of interest that Joseph got the money for these ads through his day trading profits.

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