The Covid – 19 pandemic has forced me to reflect on many things, of the sanctity and fragility of human life, of its entanglement with economic activity, of the role of science, and, most of all, connection, the substrate that links them all together. In its Latin origin the word means to bind, and that’s what connection does, at all levels.

Our reverence for human life impels us these days to take measures that threaten connection at the social level and that in turn connects with economic action, vital not only to wealth creation but mental health as well. And the furious activity by bio- chemists the world over to find a vaccine binds all in a huge cluster of hope.

The defence of social distancing, adopted by every society to stem the viral hydra, requires human connection to be broken, or at least significantly curtailed. The strictness of the measures taken to do this fluctuates over time and where they operate, but always some form of disconnection is the product.

The discomfort, indeed pain, felt by virtually everyone, some more than others, from breaking apart the normal, everyday connection with others, their family, their friends, their colleagues at work, even strangers in some degree, has bent the limits of tolerance.  Rates of depression and anxiety, even suicide, have flared up throughout communities like a parallel plague. All this is visceral witness to the need for connection. Besides, trust and co-operation, even altruism, are known to pulsate in its heart.

We usually extol connection in human matters, but unavoidably its opposite exists, for example, in family breakups, litigation, polarization in politics, and wars, as well as pandemic separation.  At the international level, the connective web of globalization is being torn. We see this in the divisive rhetoric between China and Western nations about the origin of the frightening virus, and by implication the blame for it.

We cannot fully appreciate connection without acknowledging its opposite, for its identity depends to some extent on the potential for, as well as the actuality of, disconnection. Connection comes first and informs the nature of its opposite, which cannot exist without its antecedent. In a sense they form a unity of opposites, a general idea posited by Heraclitus. The Greeks gave us a metaphor in illustration. When establishing his shrine at Delphi, Apollo, excited by the venture, rushed up one side of Mount Parnassus and, at the top dashed down the opposite side. The paths up and down are really part of the same path.

Pythagoras was the first of several philosophers to produce a table of opposites. It contained ten, including one and many, light and darkness, good and evil.  He might have, but didn’t include connection and disconnection.  Anaximander observed that the world exists in a continual struggle of opposites. They’re ordained in nature, the one ineluctably linked to the other in a certain kind of way, and out of this, everything is created.

Connection and disconnection are fundamental not only in human affairs but also at every level of existence, from height to depth. They’re all around us and in us everywhere, even though often we don’t notice them. They compose the rhythm of the universe.  That’s why we feel them so profoundly.

It’s possible to perceive the Big Bang as a cataclysmic disconnection event that set in motion eternal waves of connection and disconnection. The majestic drama acts by connective attraction and repulsion in all aspects of existence, from the collection of tiny particles forming small entities to the huge agglomerations of gas and dust that create the stars.

Once bound together, all are destined to break apart and connect again in a different guise, and then disconnect, only to connect once more to make a new identity, all done in a constant repetition of process lasting until the end of time.

And so, it’s inevitable that the phenomenon is at the basis of human creation, giving breath to what Aristotle said, “Man is by nature a social animal and naturally constituted to live in company”.  The force of connection drives humanity’s social urge in an incessant beat, leading us all, without exception, in the great dance of life. It animates us from conception to death; and even after, embedded in the memory of loved ones left behind.

The desire to live in company is most noticeably expressed in the family, where, ordinarily, connective forces are strongest, and where ‘the other’ is outside the boundary.

The truth of it all is in John Donne’s observation, “No man is an island entire of itself”. From the time we reach out to touch our mothers, tiny on our continent, we search for human connections and never cease. As we mature, we learn to liberate ourselves from early self –centredness, making the quest more productive. Nature smiles when we find connections and frowns when we do not.

Indeed this was the essence of the moral behind the Greek myth of Narcissus. The conspicuously handsome youth was so bound to the absorbing fascination of his beautiful reflection in the pool that he could not form a connection with another. Echo and the wood nymphs who were in love with him, were shut out, their pleas unheard.

Always on the look- out for behavior that affronts nature, Nemesis, the goddess of divine retribution, punished him with a self-destructive death and reconfiguration into a little yellow flower. It was his refusal of human connection, attributable to excessive self-love, which did him in. Today we use the word narcissism to describe the self-centred condition that seems to be increasingly prevalent in our society. Though not nearly as pronounced as in the myth, it’s one that tends to loosen the bonds of connection that we naturally live by, and in some instances snap them.  In that sense it operates in denial of who we really are, and in extreme cases among individuals, diminishes their mental health, a state that experts say calls for being in touch with reality.

Our brains, too, take up the theme of connection. Neurons, which are the basic structural and functional units of the nervous system, form a meticulous inter-connective network, communicating with each other constantly. With almost ninety billion of them in the human brain, they operate through more than a hundred trillion synapses, or connections. Their functions are de rigueur for a healthy person. When disconnections occur, unpleasant abnormalities follow – stroke, depression, dementia, and a host of others.

Neural activity displays another aspect of connection, one that can occur elsewhere as well. As the famous neuropsychologist, Donald Hebb, pointed out, any two neurons that are connected in activity at the same time tend to become associated so that activity in one facilitates activity in the other. If scaled up, this type of connection and its positive effect can be seen to apply to the whole person when connected with another. Team – work could be said to be based on this principle.

We tend to look for connection everywhere, sharpening our eyes when it’s difficult to find. Sometimes the most affecting are among people who normally oppose one another.  The Christmas Truce of World War One is arguably the most extraordinary case of this. There, influenced by the entreaties of Pope Benedict XV, soldiers of both sides along the Western Front stopped firing and climbed out of their trenches to exchange greetings in the cold white frost of Christmas Eve.  For a while, the songs of Silent Night and Auld Lang Syne, sung in language unintelligible to the other side, flowed across the terrible no-man’s land like a magic arm and connected the bitter enemies in a common bond of humanity. Then, inevitably the connection broke.

A more recent case occurred during the Black Lives Matter march in the USA, protesting against the police murder of George Floyd. There the protagonists were the marchers and the police, with implacable hatred sparking the air. The sheriff of Flint, Michigan, facing a crowd shouting threats and obscenities at him and his fellow police officers, slowly took off his helmet and laid down his baton. After the protesters got over momentary shock, they said in unison, “Walk with us”. And he did. He even gave a protester a hug. One of them said on TV that the sheriff gave a message of hope that peace was coming. And for a moment the enemies were connected.

Today’s lock down constraints are accepted as prudent but not infrequently avoided, even against the rules. Sometimes they’re circumvented lawfully by permitted gatherings, by zoom, by social media. We’re always thinking of ways; so painfully unnatural does it feel to be isolated, so strange, and so contrary to our sense of identity. We’re not allowed to be what we are. Our only consolation is that we expect it to be temporary.

Connection is so vital that we recruit the arts to provide it. Music is an especially connective force, for the players as well as the listeners. Its structure guarantees it.  The seminal agreement between the imagination and the arrangement of sound gives it form. The notes connect to each other to create the rhythm, the melody, the harmony. Rebellious notes leave the home, transform and come home again. In their purpose of connection with the listener they penetrate the brain’s amygdala, the centre for integrating emotions.

And, of course, language is a crucial connector, not only in everyday conversation but also in stories, stories told by people about the history of their culture, of tribulations, of moral challenges, of victory over adversity, of great ancestors that give identity to the people.  Homer’s epics, the Bible, Australian Dreamtime stories, and many others, all provide substance to the connecting force of narrative, which animates culture and gives it meaning. My tribal elder friend, Big Bill Neidjie, once told me by the fire on a camping trip as he fell sad about the gradual leaking away of Aboriginal tradition, “When the people forget their story their culture dies.” Disappearing with it is a primary connection.

Connection can also arise by chance, from being in a place where it just happens. Though in a sense abstract, it can be so deep as to inform a life, a linkage that never breaks.  So it was with me.

I grew up in a household joined to Shakespeare. My parents were actors in London’s Old Vic; they met there. They took me, as an infant born in London, to Canada while on a tour of the bard’s plays and stayed in Toronto, where I grew up. Several years later they were walking in the quadrangle of Trinity College, part of the University of Toronto and modeled architecturally after the Gothic beauty in Cambridge. They had played Shakespeare in the open air at Regent’s Park and knew its magic on a warm summer’s night. And so they started Canada’s first Shakespeare festival, beginning with Twelfth Night in Toronto’s open air.

I remember our house vibrating with Shakespearean sounds as my father and mother rehearsed their lines in different rooms. Being so immersed in it I was desperate to play a part in the productions.  And then, a few years after my voice changed, I was allowed to play Curio in Twelfth Night – in grease paint for the first time and wearing a beard stuck on with spirit gum to make me look older. I had only one line. To distract the love -tormented Orsino from his obsession with Olivia I barked out, “Will you go hunt my lord?”

Anyone who has been on the stage knows the magical connection that can arise with the audience when the production goes well. It can be felt as clearly as a hug.

As I grew older I played more parts, spending the summers with Shakespeare in the Quadrangle. It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life, always in breathless anticipation at the beginning of the season to hear what part my father would give me. Over time I deepened my connection, playing Malcolm, Lorenzo, Ferdinand, Edgar, and ultimately Hamlet.

The connection I have with the inspirational playwright never escapes from my heart. Even though I left the theatre for law and then business I have never separated from Shakespeare’s vision of humanity and immortal language. Throughout life’s distractions and time’s interruptions he is always there, even when below the threshold of awareness.

The prescient playwright was the non-pareil in dramatizing connections – Hamlet and his murdered father, Lear and Cordelia, Prospero and Ariel, Oberon and Puck, Romeo and Juliet and so many others.  Whenever I am asked to say something about the connection that underlies friendship I quote Polonius’ advice to his son on the eve of his going to France.

 “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried Grapple them unto your soul with hoops of steel.”

Connection can appear in more aspects than can be listed, except in cyber memory and perhaps not even there, but a salient one, one that embraces the human core with elemental vigor is the pull of place. There, its form can generate a sense of belonging, a blessing so vital that without its presence, soul – choking loneliness grows. Some of the most powerful places are the home, the village, town, city or country, sometimes the work place and, in the case of Aboriginal culture, the land, the place where ancestors and creator forces roamed.

Connection with a place felt to be sacred has universal presence, unlimited by time. Sumerian and Egyptian temples brought the spirit of their gods into contact with humans, and the Greeks endowed the shrine of Delphi with the protection and clairvoyance of Apollo. The connection famously includes Asian places of worship. All religious structures are community connectors. It’s not by accident that the word ‘religion’ comes from the Greek ‘ligo’, to bind together. And all connect with a higher power.

In a sense, the act of human connection implies leaving, a departure from one state towards another; through the movement creation of a sort arises. In cases of positive human experience, the action liberates the ego from the staleness of self -absorption to produce something that matters, even something as simple as a sense of well –being. Sufis have an exercise to manifest this.  A master once told me to look at a tree on the distant horizon and imagine connecting with it.  I tried it and when I did, I felt a release of care and a certain exhilaration as my mind reached across the space and touched the green branches in the sky. I do it from time to time if I feel anxious or a little blue.

Never before in living memory have we experienced the disconnecting effect of pandemic like this. It’s not that plagues are new, except to our direct experience. We know of the Black Death that carried off a third to a half of Europe’s population in the 14th century and of recurring leprosy outbreaks that led to ostracizing the sufferers in colonies. And the Spanish flu of 1918 with its doubling of deaths a year later is often cited. People must have felt the disconnection in excruciating pain, undoubtedly more savage than we suffer. But, while history gives perspective, it’s the present that generates the emotion.

Unlike in past times, we have alternative means now to connect – the telephone and zoom, digital technology. Indeed, social media has for long been a way to connect, often supplanting the face-to-face sort.  But the anxiety and loneliness so widely felt in the Covid days show up the hollowness of that method. We can indeed connect remotely, but connection prefers closeness; it shuns distance.

Love, together with kindness its daughter product, is the strongest connective force among humans there is – a first principle. In the midst of Covid fear and worry, when it might have been expected that people, torn by self- preservation, would descend further into disconnection, kindness has ridden to the rescue.

Despite some silly exceptions like toilet paper fever causing a few outliers to grab and push, kindness, animated by ideas and actions, has emerged as a new social norm, universally encouraged by all media and their celebrities.  It might not outlast the Covid experience but at least it shows its worth and waves its wand over people for now.  Across the distance it’s bringing strangers together in a spirit of natural co-operation. As Shakespeare said, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

Like the tide coming in to connect the sea with the land, raising boats left stranded on the sand, the feeling of kindness is inching along to connect people with each other and uplift their morale by acknowledging, as is so often and comfortingly expressed, that we are all in this together. The sentiment resonates with the exhortation of Leviticus to love your neighbor as thyself and gives substance to the aphorism in Proverbs, “A brother is born for a time of adversity.”