One of my biggest failings in life is thinking that I can do everything on my own. (Cue Renée Zellweger singing All By Myself in the Bridget Jones movie...) I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I’m about to head up to the Edinburgh Fringe for the month to do my show, Vivalicious. Of course, sometimes do-it-all-yourself is a useful strength, especially when you're doing stand-up comedy. It’s true that, up there, you really are on your own – on stage, at least – and you had better bloody well get on with it. Other times, though, this lone-ranger thinking is dramatically unhelpful, such as when I decide that I’m going to manage (and micro-manage) everything at the festival myself, and I end up basically running a one-woman theatre company that should have 17 competent employees and instead just has one incompetent one (me).
It has been something of a hallmark in my life that I go along with the sentiment of Little Britain’s “Write the theme tune, sing the theme tune…” with a martyr’s expression on my face, virtually willing things to go wrong so that I can mutter, “Well, how was that supposed to work when I’m having to do everything on my own, anyway?” I think lots of us do this in different ways in our lives, whether it’s forcing ourselves to do the grocery shopping (again) when we could have asked someone else to pick up some bits and pieces on the way home, or struggling with some technological nightmare when a friend or colleague could manage it really easily. In short, some of us are rubbish at asking for help – and at reaching out to the community around us.
Fortunately, philosopher Mark Nepo, also known as Oprah Winfrey’s favourite spirit guide, has written a book about how much we need other people. More Together Than Alone is a celebration of community and of our ties to others. It’s also a warning of how we risk devaluing these ties, and losing them completely, because of the frantic nature of modern life and our over-reliance on digital contact. We need to get used to reaching out, he argues, before it’s too late – and we’ve forgotten how to do it.
We need to get used to reaching out, he argues, before it’s too late and we’ve forgotten how to do it
Nepo’s examples of connection come from all kinds of different tribes, societies and eras. He writes about the Navajo Indians who ask, “How are the connections?”, when they mean, “How are you?” The connections are your friends, family, partner, colleagues… These are the relationships that improve our wellbeing. Unless all the “connections” in your life are OK, then not very much else is going to be OK. Nurture the connections and all your other problems solve themselves.
He has a lot of suggestions for improving our sense of community, including some brilliant but scary ideas about inviting a group of people round to your house where everyone invites someone new. He includes questions that you could ask each other in this group about times in your life when you’ve felt most connected or experienced a sense of community. (I am both in love with the idea of this conversation and horrified by it.) He is not a technology Luddite, and even suggests setting up a Facebook page for your local community where people can post positive stories of neighbourly conduct. Social media is not the enemy. But it must not replace real life.
The thing is, he argues, this work is urgent and important. People have never felt more isolated or confused than in the modern era. To get through this time with your sanity intact is not a job for one person. It’s the job for society, for community, for many heads and hearts. I feel it may be necessary for me to have a cheese and wine party while I am in Edinburgh this month. I will get everyone else to bring everything. All By Myself will not be on the playlist.
Viv’s show Vivalicious (about self-help in the coming age of President Oprah Winfrey) is at the Underbelly at the Edinburgh Fringe from 1 to 26 August at 4.10pm. Book your tickets here.