How Separate Are We, Really?



On July 14, a man ran his truck into crowds of people enjoying the Bastille Day fireworks in Nice, France, killing eighty-some and wounding so many others.

Bastille Day celebrates the birth of the French Republic, with its motto, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Fraternity means, among other things, communal support, friendship, brotherhood.

A while after the breaking news, we heard that two of the dead were Americans. Even later: they were a father and 11-year-old son from Texas. Then, Lakeway, which is pretty much a suburb of Austin, where I live. And late that evening my 16-year-old daughter R got an email from the acting studio in Austin that is her second home: the boy, Brodie Copeland, was also involved at the studio. She didn’t know him personally, but it hit really close to home for her.

T and I held her as she cried, and we cried with her, me for Brodie and his father Sean, and all the dead and wounded, but also for R, whose gut was wrenched by the man who did this unspeakable thing on the other side of the ocean, in a country she’s never visited, to people with whom, at first inspection, she had no connection.

It’s a small world.

I posted about it on Facebook the next day, just because I needed to get it off my chest, and a friend we met in South Texas decades ago, and who has long since moved back to Europe, commented that her husband worked for the same company as Brodie’s father, Sean Copeland. I don’t know if they knew each other, but they could very well have.

Every now and then I think of the notion that we are all no more than six degrees removed from one another. It’s the theory that everyone–by who they know, and in turn, who those people know–is only six steps away from any other person in the world.

Any other person.

I believe it’s probably less, because the theory was  set out in 1929, and the world has become a lot more connected since then.

So let’s do a little exercise. How many people do you know, or how many have you ever at least shaken hands with? Just pick the top ones–famous people, or people who have met famous people–the people who probably have the most widespread connections. These are your first degree of separation. And then imagine who those people have met.

For instance, for one year, not long after the war, the Dutch princesses went to the school that my mother, aunt and uncle were at.  My uncle once shared a nap time mat with Princess Irene in Kindergarten, and Princess Beatrix was in my aunt’s class, and I think she came to a birthday party once, but I’m not completely sure about that. Anyway, I’m two degrees removed from Beatrix, who became queen, and who stepped down a few years ago for her son. Imagine all the people she has shaken hands with during her lifetime. Nelson Mandela, for instance, who visited the Netherlands while he was president of South Africa. And imagine all the people he shook hands with, from high muckety-mucks to people in remote South-African villages. So I’m at the most four degrees removed from all of them.

My husband has a relative who works in the television and movie business. He’s met lots of actors and directors. I’m not sure he has met Angelina Jolie, but if he has, then I’m at the most three degrees removed from everyone she has met, which is also a huge variety of people, from folks at the United Nations to folks in small villages all over the world.

I’m also at the most two degrees removed from Laura Bush and her daughters. So at most three from W. Who walked hand in hand with a Saudi sheikh. Who probably knew Osama bin Laden. Who preached Islamist, misogynistic hatred to Pashtun men and planned the 9-11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C..

We’re all connected via only a few steps. We’re connected to the people in Nice who got mowed down, to the man who did the mowing, to the first response people, to the journalists, to everyone all over the world who heard about this act, whatever their thoughts about it are.

And that was an attack in France. I bet the police officers who have shot black men in the streets here in the United States, for no other reason than being black, and those black men and their families, and the police officers who–as recently as today–were shot by black men for no other reason than being cops, are all separated by way fewer than six degrees.

I wish religions and politics and society focused on this connection instead of building walls, forever creating this us-against-them mentality. If we did, these horrific acts wouldn’t happen.

Just imagine…


9 responses to “How Separate Are We, Really?

  1. Michael Ignatowski

    Very well said – beautiful.


  2. Sometimes I try to find words to describe all that has been happening and there’s just never the right words, but I think you found them ..


    • Thanks. Yeah, I feel the same way. It just keeps coming. It’s gotten to the point that I go to bed at night, dreading what the news will have tomorrow.


      • For quite a few years now I have had to make myself to stop reading the news, since I ages ago worked at a newspaper I saw all the news that was in there, but since I got children I just got sick of seeing it, it literally made me sick. When Pim Fortuyn was killed they showed his photo of him lying there in a pool of blood on the ground almost life-large on the front page, close-up, half a page was delivered right there on the door mat. While my kids used to get the newspaper from the mat for me! That was the last straw, not because it was who he was, but why do we have to see that?! And things seem only to have gotten worse, the most atrocious things can be found in papers, on the internet etc. and I know me not looking at it, might not help one bit, but it’s just TOO much. And it’s sick.


      • I agree. Being able to see every awful detail of a horrific event just makes more numb to them, and to the real pain and suffering caused.


  3. This is a very interesting perspective. Thank you.


  4. Reblogged this on Audrey Driscoll's Blog and commented:
    Here is a different perspective on our troubled world from Barbara Backer-Gray.


  5. Lovely post.
    Do check out ‘Millions Tears’ on Zeke Blog


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