Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner


Originally posted on June 1, 2012

An acquaintance by email, Eric Kreuter, is writing about relevance. What an interesting word! It seems to connect in my mind with meaning, the sense of meaning, of being meaningful to others, to some cause, as needed, as having made a difference. It links also with a sense of self as rooted in a historical continuity—your profession, ethnicity, religion, any cause you’ve adopted as one of your own, strongly or weakly.

It’s a theme that I imagine being explored in an action exploration, a small- or medium-sized group or class that looks at applied sociology, or personal development, or spiritual anchoring. The question to be asked is How are you relevant? I imagine using such techniques as social network diagrams and role reversal with imagined group members, helps you probe your social network. Journaling, autobiography, creative writing, sharing with others ways of seeing how you are connected—or how you wish you were connected, how you are glad to get disconnected from this or that group or cause, what other allegiances you’d like to develop. All this overlaps with the sub-field of social psychology called “sociometry,” about which there are a number of papers on my website.

I can imagine people in such a workshop experiencing a mild jolt of recognition that: Frankly, some groups don’t care about you and don’t particularly want what you have to offer. It’s irrelevant to them, or it’s trouble. On the other hand, there are some other groups that would love to have you however you could help them.

It’s a little sobering as you come to realize that apparently some groups don’t care about your individual strengths or weaknesses, but rather simply want your money, your dues, your membership, your help, for you to buy their products.  On the other hand, there are other groups of people who seem to want to get to know you better, for your own peculiar blend of individual qualities. That feels good. Indeed, there’s even the sense that if they knew more about you they might even like and want you more!

As you do this mental survey of the landscape of your inner social map, you see that some groups reflect your history, ethnicity, profession, sub-profession, hobby interest, a socio-political cause, a social club based on your living nearby (propinquity), the corner tavern, etc. Some are more relevant to you now, others were more relevant but aren’t any more.

And you get a glimpse in the group of how many other possibilities there are of affiliations, relevance, membership, that you generally would not have the slightest interest in, nor they in you—and the point is: It’s okay!
As I reflect on my life I realize sometimes with a pang of angst, sometimes briefly, or lasting, sometimes weakly or strongly, that I have become increasingly less relevant to some of my extended family as they get on with their lives. I may (or may not) have become a little more relevant to those kids whose other parents have died, or whose parents are problematical in some way. I may be more relevant to the group that is closer to my aspirations, but not always clear which groups that might be; and less relevant to some groups that are getting weaker and I live far away.

Relevance overlaps with the sense of connectedness, and this in turn with mere propinquity: That is, your roommates or neighbors, no matter how incompatible in so many ways, still have the element of physical nearness.
This connectness also relates to the phenomenon of exchanges of recognition and greeting, or glares of hostility and “watch out for me, I’m potentially violent.” You see that more in prisons or in some combat zones. Yuk. But the point is that as Eric Berne noted in the 1960s, we all need a certain number of strokes to feel optimally socially connected. We need various numbers of roots, connections, plug-ins.

Some of the popularity of social media, texting, genealogy, and other phenomena offers this as a substantial or substitute source of belonging, relevance.

There’s also the variable of temperament: Extroverts need more strokes, and people with varieties of autism hardly know when they’re being offered, or know to return these actions.

Another theme involves the somewhat more intimate experience of feeling needed, not just recognized. And along with that, where can you turn for help or to be comforted? Is there anyone you could call at 3 in the morning if things really got bad? You might never need to do this, but just knowing that you could, that your outreach would be respected and even welcomed—well, that makes a difference in the overall quality of being relevant. So this mini-essay is just to acknowledge that dimension of our lives. Too much our social inter-dependence and embeddedness is treated as if it were hardly relevant, as if needing it were a weakness rather than a strength. I blame the subtle cult of modernity, mixed a bit with the trumped-up “romance” of the wanderin’ guy (often featured in country-western songs), as if that were a symbol of desire. (It is for women only insofar as they unconsciously wish they could be free of the network of family obligations that build up in their lives as daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, and many work roles—so the free-spirited man becomes a kind of projected hero, sexually and romantically exciting.)  Enough for now. I’m always open to intelligent comments.

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