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Connection in the Modern Age

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It was fall 2012, and I was making my final preparations to leave Canada for a yearlong sabbatical in the Caribbean.  There were household goods to pack up, services to cancel, and of course, farewells to say.

A particularly tough goodbye took place in a downtown Toronto medical office. Shelley was not only my naturopath, but also my cranial osteopath and acupuncturist. With her wide range of skills, she combined multiple modalities into a unique approach to treatment. But Shelley was more than a one-stop shop for natural healing. In the several years that I had known her, she had become a very close friend, someone to whom I confided my most private thoughts.  I had spent many a chilly Canadian weekend afternoon in her cozy office, where I shared with her frustrations and challenges in my work and private life.

Shelley put her arms around me and gave me a big hug. “Katharine, you’ll have to teach me how to use Skype.” 

“I will,” I promised.

When I visited Canada at Christmas and again the following summer, Shelley was at the top of my “must-see” list; she and I easily picked up where we had left off months before.  After I left the Caribbean and moved back to the US, we occasionally exchanged emails. Shelley was the person I’d reach out to if I had some deep soul issue I felt most people couldn’t understand.  

A few months ago, on a Saturday afternoon, I googled Shelley. I don’t know what prompted me to do this. I was stunned to see the word “obituary” after her name.  I don’t think she was more than 60 at the very most. The obituary gave few details; she had passed away about three months before, apparently after a brief illness.

My heart sank. Although it had been more than a year since our last email exchange, I thought of her often and had planned to visit her on my next trip to Toronto, although I had no idea when that would be.

I cried for a good part of that day and into the next several days. I wished I had emailed Shelley one more time. I wished I had gone to Toronto for one last visit.  I wished I had known she was ill so that I could say goodbye. I wished I had taught her how to use Skype.

In the months since then, I’ve thought of Shelley nearly every day. I wish I could call her up or email her with a question about health or to share some confidence. There’s a part of me that’s somehow in denial, thinking that she’s not really gone and that I’ll met up with her during my next trip to Toronto.

My experience is not unique, of course. When we lose someone close to us, we are once again reminded of the fact that none of us knows how many days we have on this earth.  We often feel regret for not having kept in touch. Sometimes, the death of a relative, friend, or even an acquaintance, jolts us into reflection and into making changes in our lives.

In my case, Shelley’s death made me think long and hard about how to keep in touch with friends who are in distant locations. In my adult life, I’ve moved about every two years. It seems as if I am always saying goodbye to friends and vowing to stay connected.  

I can’t help wondering if it’s harder now to maintain closeness than it used to be. In my efforts to feng shui my home in recent months, I have been clearing out old papers. Lately, I’ve been working through a large box of letters from friends and family. Most of them date to my time as a high school and college student.

I read each letter before it heads for the recycle bin. Some of the letters are about mundane issues; those are easy to toss. But others have been more difficult—even impossible—to throw away.  They are filled with such loving and sweet words, the kind people don’t seem to express through text messages, emails or Facebook Messenger.

“You are a special friend,” wrote a female friend from college. “I miss your way about you,” wrote another. A third, feeling anxious about a personal matter, and hoping we could talk on the phone, wrote, “I miss your soothing voice.”

These days, we have more ways of keeping in touch with one another than ever before: letters, email, phone calls, text messages, Facebook, FaceTime, Skype, and more. Yet, somehow we struggle to connect at times. We’re caught up in our jobs (many employers expect us to be available 24/7), in juggling our busy schedules, in raising families. Women, especially, often feel they hardly have a moment to themselves.  Communication can be superficial, brief, and hasty. We put off catching up with friends until it’s too late.  When that time comes, we feel the searing pain of regret. 

It seems as if it ought to be easier to keep in touch and to be closer than ever. But with all of the communication tools that we have nowadays, we are challenged to connect, and we still face brutal reminders that our time with our loved ones is limited.  We can’t go back, of course, and I doubt I’ll ever pen letters the way I used to. But I wonder if we can find a way to make better use of the multitude of tools available to us. While we still have time.  

What can you do to foster connection with your loved ones, especially people who are far away? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

© Katharine Spehar, 2017-2018.

Photo credit: www.pixabay.com

Social Media and the Breakdown of Civil Discourse

Numerous articles have been written about the negative effects of social media on modern society. Some authors argue that, instead of bringing people together, social media serves to create ideological silos.  From the safety of our homes, we can tuck ourselves into online communities of people with similar views on politics, religion, or almost any subject. This can bring comfort, especially in turbulent times. And when our views are outside of the mainstream, it can  be reassuring to talk to like-minded people.   (On an average day, how many people do you meet who believe that cholesterol and saturated fat are good for you?) But the dangers of communicating primarily with people who think the way we do can be far-reaching.

In his 1995 book, On Killing, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman discusses the psychological factors affecting the ability of soldiers to kill enemy combatants. Grossman, a psychologist and U.S. Army Ranger, states that the most difficult way to kill another person is in hand-to-hand combat. He cites evidence that suggests that during the Civil War, some soldiers would aim in such a way that their shots would deliberately miss the enemy fighters, or would engage in "mock firing," where they would load their weapons and simply pretend to fire. It would appear that many soldiers behaved similarly in World War II. Grossman argues that the increasing use of technology in military operations has made it easier for soldiers to kill. The technology creates not only a physical distance from the enemy but a psychological one as well.

I believe that we are witnessing a similar phenomenon of psychological distancing in human communication. In recent decades, the United States has become increasingly polarized. The results of the 2016 presidential election—and the response following it—testify to that disconnect. Part of the reason for the increasing polarization of American society is the fact that people engage less and less with others of differing opinions. More and more, people communicate electronically and through social media. Social media is, in itself, isolating and creates silos. On Facebook, people “unfriend” others who express views that they don’t like. In addition, I would argue that the distance created by technology makes it much easier to communicate in a rude way with others. Online, people hurl insults that would probably be much more difficult to express in a face-to-face conversation with a person of a differing opinion. This behavior manifests itself not only on Facebook but also in other online discussions such as the comments section on newspaper articles or under YouTube videos. Twitter is even more problematic, for various reasons. The character limit does not allow for much range of expression, and at times, the reader can’t be sure it’s a real person who is writing, or merely a bot. Of course, there can be thought-provoking discussions in online forums but, more often than not, one must sift through a mass of insults and rude and unproductive comments.

This breakdown in civil discourse represents a major danger to the future of the United States. The republic has endured for 230 years because of the ability of people of differing opinions to communicate and reach compromise. Now, instead of seeing the party on the other end as a human being, we are inclined see something amorphous, to be neutralized, unfriended, or blocked. It is difficult to compromise if you are unable even to have a reasonable—if heated—conversation with someone who holds an opposing viewpoint. In a previous post, I suggested not unfriending people on Facebook. Since that time, my thinking has evolved on this subject. While it is certainly possible to have a reasoned discussion on Facebook or via other electronic medium, this requires that both parties focus on logic, facts, and clear expression. More often than not, when we communicate electronically, we are tempted to express our visceral reactions. We don't have the benefit of facial expressions, body language, or tone of voice, and our words can be misconstrued. Things can become so unpleasant that we end up regretting having jumped into the fray and want to close ourselves off. To combat this serious issue, I urge people, for the sake of the country and our future, to seek out as many opportunities as possible to talk to others of differing opinions in in face-to-face settings. This may be uncomfortable, but by talking directly to other people, all participants in a discussion will receive the benefit of the full spectrum of human interaction. We may then have a real chance at reaching a better understanding of one another.

How can we restore civil discourse to the United States? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

© Katharine Spehar, 2017-2018.

Photo credit: www.pixabay.com