For those whose minds don’t immediately snap to the reference: There was a ubiquitous party game from late last century called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Essentially a way for cinephiles with capacious memories to show off, the object was to choose an actor—any actor—and then connect back to prolific big-screen thespian Bacon in six moves or less. Take Gone With the Wind star Olivia de Havilland. Late in her career, De Havilland lent her talents to the `70s disaster-genre disaster The Swarm, also starring Richard Chamberlain. Chamberlain played a supporting role in the Katherine Hepburn vehicle The Madwoman of Chaillot, as did Donald Pleasance. In Halloween, Pleasance starred as the psychiatrist trying to find asylum escapee Michael Myers before he kills the babysitter, Jamie Lee Curtis. Curtis and Bacon both appeared in the early `90s Big Chill rip-off Queens Logic. From the antebellum south to the Brat Pack in four moves. (When I was tending bar in Tribeca in the early ‘90s, I met a struggling comedian/actor who told me he had developed a game exactly similar to the one described above—note that this was two or three years before the advent of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon—but he called his version “Back to Bacon.”)
Radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi was the first to state the idea of six degrees of separation in his Nobel speech of 1909, suggesting that it would take six radio relay stations to send a message around the world. This started futurists on a tear of thinking about the “small world phenomenon” that has given us, among other things, the Internet, as well as the charming ethnocentrism of the Disneyworld ride It’s a Small World After All.
The “six degrees” concept came into the public consciousness in the mid-‘90s with the cinematic adaptation of John Guare’s play “Six Degrees of Separation.” The title of the play refers to the idea that if each of us is one degree away from each person we know, and two degrees away from people who are known to people we know, then we are all an average of six degrees removed from any person on earth.
A simple way of saying this: We’re all connected.
And this is where semantics enters, for the quality of connection is important. As a newspaper reader, I can say that I am connected to the recent catastrophic events in Burma and China. But this connection is limited to non-engaged intellectualism. I know the meteorologic and geologic causes of cyclones and earthquakes, and how many tens of thousands of dead are being reported on any given day. But my connection to the events extends no further than this, aside from a momentarily heightened empathy for the suffering of others and a thought to send a check to the Red Cross. My connection to these events is weak. In contrast, one of these reasons we all feel so connected to 9/11, especially those of us who live in New York, is that we are likely physically connected to people directly affected, or at most, one degree removed.
The events of 9/11 were much on the minds of those I heard speak at the Omega Institute’s Being Fearless conference in April. This makes perfect sense, as 9/11 is the current touchstone for our existential dread. And the residual fear from 9/11 is, in one sense, fear of the other; fear of those we are not connected to and who seem unwilling to connect to us. (NB: I’m not sure we can connect with everyone. Religious fundamentalists—of all stripes—seem concerned with connecting in only one particular way, abjuring human relations in favor of tethering themselves to the supposed goals of a higher power. How do we as humanists connect to that?)
At the conference, Omega cofounder Stephan Rechstaffen reminded the audience of the origin of the institute’s name. It’s taken from a term coined by a French Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, to a describe a rather complex theory about the evolution of consciousness. The Omega Point, which Rechstaffen thankfully explained in simple terms, is the point at which consciousness recognizes it own interdependency. In the context of Being Fearless, Rechstaffen’s message was that it was time for the New Age to engage with the world. It’s not enough, anymore, to retreat into the interior. We need to use the inner resources we have been developing lo these many years—through the various disciplines that Omega has been fostering—to make a change in the world.
And I don’t think Rechstaffen was talking about sending a check to Red Cross, either. The connection he was calling for was deeper than that. As Caroline Myss noted in her keynote speech at Being Fearless, “You cannot have an intellectual experience of God.” (By “God,” I take Myss to mean the greater consciousness suggested by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.)
One way I saw this engagement in action recently was in the work of Omega itself, through its community outreach. At a recent Hudson Valley Green Drinks event, I was introduced to Joan Henry, who directs empowerment programs at Mill Street Loft for inner-city girls in Poughkeepsie. Henry explained how she had been contacted in the fall of 2006 by Traci Childress, a program coordinator at Omega, about the possibility of sponsoring a group of girls for Arts Week, Omega’s annual feast of interdisciplinary creativity. Working with Childress and two other instructors, Lesley Hawley and Jeri Van Blaricom, Henry crafted an experience for 14 urban, at-risk girls—some of whom had never eaten “vegetarian” food before (the food served on the Omega campus being strictly vegetarian)—to connect to themselves, to connect with their potential, and, as Childress pointed out, it was an opportunity for everyone at Omega to connect with the fierce energy of these girls, a group not typical of Omega’s demographic. Since the unqualified success of Arts Week, Omega has forged a connection with Mill Street Loft that has extended to scholarships to some of its conferences, like “Women and Power,” and the organizations are looking to collaborate again on Arts Week in the future.
And how did Omega’s Traci Childress connect with Mill Street Loft’s programs? Reading Chronogram.
Back to Bacon, as they say.