By Eli Steier
"The inability for people to establish lasting social bonds is a problem that is on par with racism."
I remember sitting down to eat lunch with a colleague who had recently graduated from college. We began swapping stories, and, as we were reminiscing, a common theme emerged: we both had lost touch with many of our close friends from growing up. Not only that, I realized that I had lost touch with most of the people that I knew from my pre-college years, if only vaguely. People do grow apart, and this isn't an uncommon occurrence. However, it is taken almost as a given that a person will not end up living in the same place they grew up in, or near their immediate family, let alone their extended family. If education is understood as the generational transfer of knowledge on how to survive in the world, then the families that are distances apart might lose out on a lot of valuable knowledge. Education, in many ways, seems like it prepares its students to leave home, and never return. Of course, economic necessities do come into play, but there is a cost: You can miss out in sharing your life with those you love the most. In order to develop lasting social bonds, time must be invested, as well as commitment to a specific place. The internet has enabled communication from all over the world, and some declare that online communities can replace the interaction of living people. As fantastic as internet communication is it cannot create the same warmth as a gathering of friends in a cozy living room.
The colleague I spoke with mentioned that most people do not want to invest the effort that friendship requires. This rang true, and gave me pause. What is worth the effort, if not friendship, family, and life shared? Perhaps, more importantly, what led to this problem and what can be done? This situation was created by the accessibility of distractions, frayed social bonds, loss of
commitment to being a neighbor, friend, family member, and loss of commitment to organizations that support these things.
From my interactions with older people in Ithaca, New York City, and Long Island, I have learned about the decline of neighborhoods, the decrease in social activities, and the increase in isolation. There was a time when bowling alleys were popular, but they have been replaced by the gym. Though exercise at the gym can be done with others, it is often more autonomous, and lonely. There has been a decrease in membership in religious organizations as well as fraternal organizations. It seems that the current zeitgeist is against people joining with others to share their lives. All relationships include the possibility, almost the absolute certainty, of being hurt, and the distractions before us help us to avoid that necessary risk. The entertainment and knowledge at our fingertips is highly seductive. The numerous distractions like Facebook, iTunes, television, video games, blogs, and Twitter can be used to enact change, but often end up dissipating focus. In isolation we can be like gods, retreating into our imaginations, crafting amazing images of ourselves removed from reality; however, it is only with others that we can become truly human. I think our generation is lonelier. With the high rate of divorce, I think many people do not know what it is like to know the stability and protection a committed marriage provides or even how to have a committed relationship, or that one is possible. One of things I have encountered, I think, is the inability for people to see themselves as part of something larger than themselves. Since they cannot do that, they do not feel an impetus to work to change things that are unrelated to them.
Relationships require constant work, commitment, and, since there is no guarantee that things will work out, courage is also needed. Communities are not abstractions, are not perfect, and are situated in specific places with specific people. It is each individual's responsibility to create the world they want to live in; so, if we really want to live in a community, we will have to work for it. I think one of ways to create a community is to build healthy lasting social bonds at every level (lover, family, friend, neighbor). It is only when people start to really care about the people they live around, the place they live in, that they work to make changes.
From my experience, it can be difficult to reach out when one is already feeling so isolated. The act of reaching out can feel overwhelming, like violating a social taboo, going against the grain. It was hard for me to introduce myself to a neighbor when I was living in Suffolk County, but I did it because I wanted to live in a world where I had a neighbor instead of a stranger. I was
met with some cold reactions. One person told me that "you don't knock on doors in Suffolk County." Not the friendliest of experiences, but I found out that not everyone in Suffolk County was like that. I eventually did meet some people who were open to the idea of being neighbors. There are nice people out there, doing things out there, just when I didn't know anyone I didn't
know where to begin, but by trying and failing, I eventually began to inhabit the world I wanted to live in.
One of the acknowledged causes of racism is ignorance. The racism problem is directly related to, and exacerbated by, the not knowing your neighbor problem. If you frequently eat dinner, or play games with someone, you get to know them, and the stereotypes, from whatever background, are replaced with actual experience. So when it comes to caring about people and
places, there is no limit to the things that an individual can do, and building a community can start with a brave knock on a stranger's door.
Author's Note: Some of these ideas are Michael Umphrey's, and are restated with my own
understanding. I take full responsibility for my words above, and any clarifications should be
directed to me, since Mr. Umphrey did not partake in the creation of this piece.