In 2011, I went home – a small town in Northern New England, close to the Canadian border – for the funeral of a close family friend. More than 300 people filled the pews and balcony of the congregational church (seriously!), there to celebrate the life and mourn the passing of someone we knew as family, friend, business associate, school or political or religious or cultural connection, neighbor, acquaintance.
Around the same time, I went to another funeral at an Episcopal church in San Carlos. My partner’s grandmother was the matriarch of a big, close-knit extended family, many of whom had traveled from across the country to be there – she was well-loved and cherished and had a good life. Yet there were only about 40 people in attendance, almost all of us related by blood or marriage.
The funeral I went to at home was a public event, the one I went to in metropolitan California, where I live now, a private one.
These funerals got me thinking about how, as human beings, we need public space in a really fundamental – and really personal – way. What seems like a gazillion years ago now, I went to grad school because I believe ideas are important (and as a poor kid from a rural area didn’t have a good understanding of career options)…but I ended up sitting in my dissertation defense explaining that I wasn’t going to be an academic. What I wanted from engagement with ideas wasn’t what academia traditionally “does.” I wanted a relationship to ideas that was public and personal, where I could listen to a thoughtful eulogy about ordinary lives lived extraordinarily and hear people talk about personal anecdotes while also referencing big ideas – and reflect on their meaning in company. It’s in public spaces that the life of the mind and the life of the community meet: by sharing our lives and talking about ideas about our lives, we better understand ourselves and other people.
We’re going through (all of us humans) huge changes in our experiences of work, family, community, learning, nature, creativity, purpose – life. Doesn’t it make sense that the rather dim state of our collective psychological and emotional “wellness” (all those anti-depressants and therapy hours and the sheer pervasiveness of mental health conditions that touch all our lives but that we don’t talk about) is tied to the fact that we go through so much of what matters in our lives in private (or alone)?
Our individual anxieties, stresses, occasional run-ins with sadness and powerlessness, and bouts of self-doubt and self-blame aren’t just personal. They’re about the stuff that’s happening to all of us – right now. Which is why we need a new kind of space that is both public and personal.