Only Connect

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. – E.M. Forster

I have become the type of person I hate in Japan, the one who hogs the seats on trains. You know the type, the gaijin or salaryman with the wide stance who thinks the entire carriage belongs to him. Let me tell you how I became such a person.

I recently noticed that as I get older and the pain I experience due to cerebral palsy (and maybe the beginnings of middle age) have made me socially inert. I was never been the life and and soul of the party, I’ve always been one who prefers his own company, and maybe that of a good book, but now I catch myself actively avoiding human company. And that, I feel, is not good. The pain of course, is not pleasant and the inability to be out and about for long periods without pain or collapsing, is far from fun, but that is no the worst thing about having a disability. The worst part is how having a disability dictates how you respond to people.

It would be easy to dismiss this as due to the fact that I live in Japan and am not Japanese, that whilst I am trying to learn Japanese, it’s inevitable that I will be socially isolated. And between the drunk salaryman trying to practice his English or the curious child seeing their first foreigner with a disability, there are many good reasons to turn on the smartphone and slap on the headphones, which act like a ring of steel against social interaction. It’s surely OK to build a wall of sound around yourself, to protect yourself with podcasts and YouTube videos, isn’t it?

And what do the headphones of solitude protect me from? This was a question that occurred to me recently. It may indeed offer some minimal shielding from unwanted, and upon rare occasion intimidating encounters here in Japan, but on closer reflection, I began to realize that that was no the reason. Rather I was trying to protect those around me from myself.

It’s something I first noticed some months ago visiting Britain, I met an old school friend. As the friend hugged me hello, which placed pressure on my left side, the side affected by cerebral palsy,II felt anger rather than joy at meeting my friend. It wasn’t their fault, they did not know it would cause me pain, they had after all not met me for about ten years. And yet anger was still my initial reaction, albeit a reaction I attempted to hide.

My body often spasms, and those spasms are involuntary, my arms and legs on my left side have a tendency to flail and hit a passenger sitting next to me on a train or as I am walking down the street. You find ways to isolate and distance yourself physically. The empty seat next to you is your friend, it means that on this journey at least, you won’t do anyone any harm.

Pain can also make you a mean person. It’s not simply that you avoid people, perhaps on the white understandable assumption that you could hurt them, you begin to people as something to be avoid, and obstacle on your way from A to B, rather than a potential encounter with a fellow human being.

I know, of course, that most of it is in my head, most of the time my body won’t actually spasm and flail and that I might go many a train journey without injuring anyone. However, there is that word ‘might’, the fact is that occasionally my body does seemingly act independently of my will, so I fear, however unreasonably, that it is only a matter of time before I get accused of assault through some involuntary movements of body.

Maybe assault charges are unlikely, but here is something I can foresee happening. I shall become the destroyer of smartphones. Recently JR East, the railway that serves Tokyo relaxed its rules on using mobile phones in the priority seats area. It seems, on face of it to be a perfectly reasonable adjustment. After all many people use them anyway, regardless of the warning not to do so. Despite their being banned at hospitals, mobile phone signals don’t seem to cause any problems for pacemakers. So we should all be free to call people from the priority seats, right?

Believe me, I sympathize with those who want to make calls from those seats, I have, to my shame, made calls from them too. However, if you are sitting on the left of me, and holding your phone or your lap or near your ear, there is every possibility that it will be knocked out of your hands by a spasm, and there is little I can do to prevent that happening, if you are sitting too close, as many of understandably do on the last train home.. If you don’t believe me you need only examine the scratches on my own generic smartphone – which I keep discreetly hidden in a bumbag on train journeys, with only headphones protruding from its safe haven, lest it fall foul of my own disability.

I know it’s a drag, but priority seats are meant for people who have a body which at best can be characterized as unpredictable, and whilst the embargo on mobile phones is ridiculous, I have no doubt that in my case, the prohibition has prevented some nasty, not to mention expensive accidents.

I have come to the sad realization that sometimes good fences do indeed make good neighbors.