“Knowing others and being known; investing in somewhere instead of trying to be everywhere. Communities are built, like Legos, one brick at a time.”
Last week a friend of ours shared an article on Facebook, The only metric of success that really matters is the one we ignore by Jenny Anderson, which brilliantly lays out research and personal experience highlighting the physical, spiritual and mental benefits of living in a tight knit community.
The article posits that we are often these days, even in the age of constant social media, suffering from social poverty – that is, a lack of substantive, face to face and personal socialization. The author speaks from personal experience when she reflects that, even in a bustling city, you can know 100 people but still feel like you really know no one.
“The problem isn’t ‘are you socially isolated,’ ie, you have no social contact. The question is, are you experiencing social poverty, inadequate social support?”
I know my wife and I sometimes felt this living in Washington, DC – that you could hustle and bustle around many many people throughout the week – and be connected constantly on your phone and via social media – but at the end of the week often feel like you’d had very little substantial connection with anyone – and that there were few and far between people who you could really count on and communicate with as true friends and family.
At the same time, since we traded Greater Washington with its millions of people to Washington County and our tiny village with just 1,900 people, there are deeper, clearer and more compelling relationships growing. There’s a lot less to do – but there’s more to hear, to say and to connect with at such a deeper level because, in some ways, there’s time – and space -and active caring in our community. We have the ability to look each other in the eye multiple times year-round and revisit conversations and conundrums that in city life get washed over, skipped or just ignored because there’s no time. With fewer people available, every relationship matters at a much deeper level. And what you say or do to each person will circle back to you much faster. In a city you can at least pretend that you may never see someone ever again. In small town life that person may teach your child, run a neighboring business or be friends with your boss – and there’s zero chance of just avoiding them forever.
We all sense the need for connection – and the social media with which we fill our lives can be a panacea and make us feel more connected. But as the article argues, we need to make real choices in our lives towards connecting in person as well – towards having the longer, more complicated talks, and facing each other and connecting with a circle of friends who can support us because they actually know us – truly know us. And this need exists not just at the mental and spiritual level but also at the physical level – a cure for the high blood pressure, anxiety and lack of movement that may doom us to an early grave if we live our lives all alone – even if we’re tweeting 50 times a day.
“People crave a sense of belonging. And yet we focus on how to look better, exercise efficiently, and work effectively, often neglecting to take the necessary steps to build and sustain social ties.”
At the same time, a plastic surgeon recently outlined in an Op Ed in The Washington Post how many of his patients are seeking plastic surgery simply to improve the look of their selfies! When he takes their picture with good lighting and the right focus they often realize they don’t need any improvements – it’s just a selfie. But given the fact that even some people are getting plastic surgery in order to improve how their eyebrows look in a selfie is another indicator that maybe we’ve turned social media sometimes into a total act of narcissism. And that one thing we need to do throughout our world is ensure that we’re looking outward at others, at real people sitting next to us, as much as we’re looking at our phones. The next time you look at the gauge on your phone that tells you how long you spent looking at it today, ask yourself: did I spend that much time today talking with people I love? The answer might be a predictor of how much time you have left.
We need community – real community – in order to survive and thrive. I feel so lucky to be in a place and space where we’re working to make community every day. But for every one of us lucky enough to live in a small town, there are thousands who must live in a city for their families, careers and because they don’t have the privilege to choose. And so we need to be talking about how we counteract the isolation, social poverty and silos we keep encountering in our online age. We need to find other ways for more people to make art and community happen in their own lives. Hopefully the counterbalance can begin with each of us, valuing what we have and working to make sure we’re talking in real time, with a circle of friends, with real face time – and more connections we can truly count on.