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?