“We should remain grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides. The sum of all our evolution, our thinking and our accomplishments is love.”
My grandparents used to live on a cul-de-sac in the outskirts of London known as Lawrence Drive. Roughly 5 years after my grandfather’s passing and 7 years after my grandmother’s, we still keep in contact with three of the couples in the neighborhood whom we, as kids, learned to refer to as “Auntie” and “Uncle” due to sheer proximity and the fact that everyone looked out for each other. These people and my grandparents acknowledged a kind of accountability for one another’s well-being.
Their relationships ebbed and flowed. There were conflicts and a couple of major falling outs. But these neighborly ties were always mended and the general forward momentum of a local group of people living together continued to instill familiarity, forgiveness, trust and an overarching sense of security and belonging.
The first time I visited my grandparents’ house on Lawrence Drive after my grandmother’s passing, there was a note left on my grandfather’s easy chair with instructions describing how to manage the heat and electricity accompanied by a second note expressing words of comfort and an open door in case I needed to see a familiar face.
These interactions were comforting and distinctly human. So the question bears asking: Is this something that can be replicated in the available online mediums that are comprising many our day-to-day communications? My thoughts are “Totally.” However, our technology is still a loooooooong way away from replicating these kinds of interactions over distances. I have sincere reservations about enabling our current technological resources as a way to establish “community.” My fear is that, until technology can support the nuance of human interaction, there will be an entire generation of people who have had an excuse to refrain from interacting with one another and therefor, lost some of that vital interpersonal development.
Granted I don’t work in tech, but many of my conversations and communication have increasingly taken place online or via chat/messaging as opposed to IRL(in real life), as the kids say. Much of what I experience with communication via electronics is choppy, cryptic and often just a means to an end. “What time show start?” “Address again?” “Where ARE you?” I have had a few meaningful moments of challenging discourse as a result of posting an interesting article or two online, but the timing is always stunted and there is a certain flow that is lacking. I hope that the genius minds behind the development of this realm of interaction have the general public in mind when they develop these programs for use by the elderly, the disabled and the otherwise disadvantaged.
To illustrate my point and in order for me to maintain my footing in this ever-shifting landscape of human communication, I have developed a basic equation to help me support my personal belief that sustaining local communities is vital to our survival as a compassionate and loving species.
Proximity + Mutual Accountability = Quality of Life
1) Proximity: From Chapter 3 in the Book Distributed Work: ”Once people are no longer collocated, then a lack of observation and face-to-face conversation are difficult or impossible…..People tend to feel more comfortable in private than in public spaces.”
Comfortable, yes, but deep and meaningful? Ho-Hum. Thinking back on my grandparents’ relationships with their neighbors, the “falling out” times were not insignificant. But they were challenged to grow past whatever it was that was angering them to either forgive and forget, or hash it out and move forward. I feel that in the “global” or on-line version of type of progress, it is much easier to ignore or even “defriend” someone with whom one is in a disagreement. Close proximity lends an urgency to situations, which requires us to act in real-time. Without proximity, there is rarely an opportunity for challenging discourse and deepening of connectivity, for less inward reflection or growth, and for less of an impetus for personal evolution.
And because of the “numbers game” of non-verbal communication, during online exchanges, we are losing a large part of conversational context and the nuanced character of human connectivity. What kind of text does one choose when intending to type sarcastically?
If we interacted with each other face-to-face the same way we interact with each other online, it would be utter idiocy as the following esurance commercial hilariously illustrates.
Clear and honest communication is necessary for the perpetuation of any relationship. Part of being honest is “showing” in conjunction with “saying.” Showing someone you are angry by scowling and speaking with a heightened sense of urgency is a form of sincerity if communicated in the moment and can give a clear indication of what is at stake. This requires a certain vulnerability and can be scary at times. This type of exchange cannot happen when one can leave the conversation simply by powering down a device. Vulnerability, while terrifying, can also be a powerful tool for personal growth and connectivity with others.
2) Mutual Accountability: “It takes a village!” How many times can you remember being shuttled to work or soccer (dance, fencing, chess, Mathletics) practice in a car load of other kids from your neighborhood by a brave and (most-likely) exhausted parent from another kid’s family? How many times were you forced to get along with or tolerate one of the other kids in that carpool? How hard was THAT? But this is where we start to develop personal accountability for our feelings and actions. We start to understand that we don’t exist in an emotional vacuum. Louis CK makes a great case for holding off on giving cell phones to kids.
Then there is the development from personal accountability to mutual accountability. Do you remember just taking a walk to the corner store as a kid? Feeding your neighbor’s cat while they are away in Mexico? These relatively simple activities require a certain level of trust and accountability for other people in your local community. They take time and practice to develop and can be exceedingly comforting in times of great need (e.g. The Lawrence Drive neighbors’ letter to me on my grandfather’s chair). We get to evolve from sharing a space for a limited amount of time in a car with a bunch of other tweeny, self-centered, immaturity machines, to cohabitating in dormitories, walking each other home from bars/music venues/late night parties, shuttling each other’s kids around to soccer (dance, fencing, chess, Mathletics) practice. Accountability for oneself takes practice. Mutual Accountability takes practicing with others.
3) Quality of Life: In the limited amount of time that we have as physical beings on this tiny planet, why not make it easier for ourselves and learn to live together in the real world? Our ancestors have been doing it for centuries. Granted, they didn’t always get along, but in the instances when they did, they probably had THE most interesting lives, loves and stories to share. The stories become legacies and the joy of the previous generations perpetuate through to the following generations. Personally, I want my stories to be full of the love, joy and hilarity that can only be experienced in the presence of other human beings. Each time I go to see a band perform live, the musicians absolutely alter the atmosphere of a space with the intensity of their performance. Or that time when I was 14 and we were playing pool in France and I sunk the 8 ball by giving it air over one of my sister’s striped balls. Those weekends when all of the neighborhood kids would escape into the forest behind our houses and build forts out of discarded lumber as the cows looked on. Or the only time I ever saw my dad cry was when he put his head in my lap as we learned of my uncle’s passing. These life-changing events shaped who I am today and instilled in me a level of understanding and compassion for humanity that I needed to be physically present for. Not one of them happened online.
I sometimes think that our humanity is all that we have to share in our lifetimes. We are fallible and impressionable and we need each other to understand our own nature. The better examples we are of each other, for each other, the more joyful and meaningful and loving our time on this planet can be.