committing to stay connected

It seems to me that there is a really large group of people (young professionals? academics? anyone with specialized career training? Americans? anyone in the globalized world?) who have moved far away from all their family members and close friends to attend the right schools and get the right jobs (or any job at all). After each completed degree or career segment, we’ve moved again, and even when an individual stays in one place, most of their friends move away. We are geographically separating ourselves again and again from the people we love.

All that moving around has its benefits, of course. We’ve experienced different cultures and climates; we’ve met people that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to; we know people in every state in the country and many countries around the world. But all that moving around also has its drawbacks–we are often isolated and lonely.

I have some really good friends here, and if I really needed help, I’m sure they would come through for me. But still, I feel like my support system is not here; it is spread all over the country. I’ve lost the real connections I had with some of the people who have impacted my life most profoundly, and I think that is a tragedy. And that has had detrimental effects on my mental state, my physical health, and my quality of life.

It seems to me that there was a point in history when community emerged on its own. There was a time when close proximity=close relationship. Neighborhoods were communities, and you lived in the same community throughout your life. But things are different now. You probably don’t even know the people who live near you. Furthermore, there is something powerful about relationships that last over decades, spanning life changes and hardships, and when those relationships wane because of distance there is a loss. Given that this is our plight (re: geographic separation), we need to be pro-active about preserving relationships across distance. It seems to me that we now have to really make a commitment to be able to stay closely connected to one another.

Social media seems an obvious solution to this problem. And you all know that I’m a huge fan of social media. So, yes, I think social media can help. As long as your family and friends post about themselves, social media can do a pretty good job of keeping you informed on the major events and even the mundane details of people’s lives. Social media can even be a tool for dealing with culture shock, so it does definitely provide some real form of connection. However, social media does not necessarily adequately fulfill the need for close relationships that I am discussing here. Perhaps it can for certain populations, but I think that the way social media is commonly used, it does not provide the sense of a personal support system that isolated people really need.

Therefore, in an attempt to address this problem in my own life, this fall I have made commitments with 9 friends and family members to communicate on a regular basis (and I am working on making a few additional commitments). Several of these commitments take the form of a promise to email each other on a specific day each week. With one friend, we committed to a weekly email plus one piece of snail mail each month. With my brother, it is a weekly video chat. With another friend, it is a video chat every other week. With another friend, our commitment is that we can’t end one phone conversation until we have scheduled our next one. The plan is that these commitments will last for years to come.

I put these “pen pal dates” in my calendar as appointments that are just as important as class or meetings. (The first few commitments were email and snail mail, so calling these friends my “pen pals” seemed appropriate. The commitments have now moved beyond only writing, but the name seems to have stuck.) For me, putting the commitments into my calendar has been a really important move. I save time in my day to fulfill these commitments, and I have shifted my thinking to see these commitments as an important part of my self-care (just as important as eating, sleeping, and exercising). Staying connected and maintaining relationships is a useful and important way to spend my time.

I can already tell that these commitments are improving the quality of my life. I feel much more connected and whole than I did six months ago. My outlook is brighter, my ability to deal with frustration is greater, my thought life is not consumed with worrying about my career, and my stress level is lower. What is more, I feel loved. Not that I felt unloved before, but now I know that I am loved. I know that there are people who would worry if they didn’t hear from my in a week. There are people who care about how my week has been, and I care about how their week has been.

Interestingly, when I approached each of these people to propose these commitments, in almost every case the person responded that they had been feeling isolated too. Almost every one of them told me that they had been needing to establish better connections. Isolation seems to be an epidemic, and I think that we need to do something to combat it.

If you are also feeling isolated, I would encourage you to make some commitments to stay connected with people. Be honest with yourself and your pen pal about your time/schedule, and don’t over commit, but also be willing to see these commitments as important ways to spend your time. Do you think you’ll try to make some commitments with people?

Or if you are already doing something to prevent isolation, I’d love to hear how you commit to maintain relationships with people far away. What has worked for you in the past? What hasn’t worked?

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12 Responses to committing to stay connected

  1. John Erickson says:

    This is a beautiful post and I feel we all struggle with this aspect of being young and mobile in a highly global world where relocation isn’t a thing anymore. With Skype, Facetime, Texting, Facebook, etc., the mediums in which we connect and stay in touch make it so easy but as you say, we have to remind ourselves that even though it may be easy, we still have to take the time and if that means putting it in our calendars then so be it.

    Great post!

  2. Lindsay says:

    I feel privileged to be part of your community! I’m thankful for our commitment to connection, and I look forward to all that we will learn and share over the years. 🙂

  3. Jessica says:

    Tracy, You must have discussed this with Lynn because she made a commitment with me to a monthly e-mail. Spreading the love!

    I think you will find that when you have children around school age you suddenly become a part of your community and make many connections. I now have so many close friends in town, with kids the same age as mine – we have all made an unspoken commitment to stay in this town and raise our children. We go on ski vacations together, look out for each others kids, and make time for our own social fulfillment with book groups or dinner parties etc….I know that these friend s would always be there for me, as well as my lifelong friends! I think it is important to choose where you want to settle down wisely. I know there are some parts of the country where I would have had a hard time finding like minded people.

    • Hi Jessica,
      Sorry it has taken me so long to reply! Yes, Lynn and I have an email commitment, and she mentioned that she wanted to do the same with you and a few other people. I’m glad that the love is spreading. 🙂
      I can also definitely see what you mean about how having kids helps nurture community. It sounds like you have an especially awesome one; those activities you mentioned sound wonderful! I also agree that there are some parts of the country where that type of really wonderful community would be much harder, in some cases for ideological reasons and in some cases for practical reasons. I fear that there are many people who don’t get to chose such a nice or permanent community as yours, but I am really glad to know that such community do exist!

  4. Garth says:

    I also like Social Media for exactly that reason, and need to step up my game to your level T!

    Yeah, I’m always torn between the benefits of continuously moving to experience diversity and the world and meet new people, but with that always comes isolation and loneliness. The organic local communities that emerged in past ages where transportation over great distances was difficult to impossible did create a strong sense of community, but they also often had negative tendencies too due to their insular status as well. And personally, while I’ve built deep friendships in every place I’ve lived, there’s something amazing about meeting new people with whom you have an amazing connection – which is pretty rare – and that usually only comes through moving oneself to a new place. Like anything, there are pros and cons, and I feel like finding balance is the way to go – and of course, super challenging.

    LA is particularly hard though due to the raw distances between places. I was lonely and felt isolated there a lot, even though I had an incredible group of friends, simply because the 2 hour round trip it took to visit any of them made the rest of life more tiring and stressful. SF is much better 😀

    • Garth! Thanks for reading & commenting! Yes, I completely agree that the goal should be to find a balance between moving/meeting new people and being purposeful about keeping up relationships across distance. Hoping social media (or technology in general) can help with finding that balance and not lull us into passive isolation. And I’m so glad that SF is better! We’ll have to come visit sometime!

  5. Allison English says:

    I love this post. And feel grateful to be part of a community committed to remaining connected across miles and years. What I think is the ultimate hurdle to cross is the challenge of achieving intimacy in friendships that are by necessity separated by miles and time. Social media will never make up for sharing in the cooking of a special meal or the warm feelings that come with conversation over a shared bottle of wine. We are a generation that has sacrificed greatly for success. How will we teach our children about the value of community and intimate friendships?

    • I am so glad that you are part of my committed community as well! Have you made commitments with others too?
      And yes, you hit the nail on the head about how to achieve intimate/deep friendships despite those miles. I agree that social media is not going to be able to meet that need, at least not social media as we currently know it. I guess we will have to teach our children (and students) about how to use social media to facilitate relationships but also be clear that intimate/deep friendships take effort and commitment and require something more than what social media currently provides. But then we have to ask about how we can convey that message to them…

  6. Eric says:

    This is the story of my life my friend! In some ways the experience you describe is what makes connecting with others locally even more difficult. Moving around is not something I find a lot of people have done. Staying connected with those that have had impact in my life can be very one sided, but I feel that when they need it in return the door is open if I keep it open. Like you, I have made a commitment write a Holiday Letter even though I can’t send the pictures of a wedding the kids or the house or the dogs or the kids or the new baby or whatever. The 65 cards I send is, in the very least, a yearly greeting to say: I’m still going, hope you are too!

    However, on the flip-side…isn’t it nice to know that if you needed to you could go to all of these places and know someone?

    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Eric. I think you made a really good point about how social media (and connections with distant people) makes it harder to connect with local people. So are you saying that since everyone can still connect to their previous friends even after a move, it means that people don’t have to make new friends with the people around them? I wonder how we could change that. Do you think it is a cultural thing? Like we don’t emphasize local friend-meeting type community events because we think that everyone already has all the friends they need?
      Also, I’m very sorry that your experience of connections with people has often been one-sided. That is not cool. Do you think making a formal commitment would make things less one-sided? K & I would love to make a commitment with you!

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