From Isolation to Connection

by Marybeth Leis

Pew Research Center reports that cellphone owners be-tween the ages of 18 and 24 exchange an average of 109.5 messages on a normal day—that works out to more than 3,200 texts per month.

“I don’t like it when people say we’re so connected today through social media and technology. It’s communication but not real connection,” declares ‘Dara’ as we brainstorm ideas at our winter retreat planning meeting. ‘Sahil’ continues: “I know what you mean. I can be messaging my friends all day, but then when we get together, it’s sort of… awkward.” I’m surprised by how candidly these five students, who haven’t met until very recently, are opening up to each other. As we continue brainstorming, our conversation revolves around themes of longing for connection and renewal. They talk about how simply coming to this planning meeting and connecting with others from Open Circle and Community Volunteer Action is such a refreshing reprieve from their usual school demands.

Cooking with students at an Open Circle retreat—an opportunity for building community, experiencing spiritual practices, and to reflect with others who are also asking questions about deeper meaning in life

Students who regularly hang out in the lounge we turn into a weekly Tech Free zone expressed similar longings when they begged us to start up the technology-free space again before classes even began in September! One of our conversations went something like this: “We should have Tech Free days every day. It makes a lot of sense, because I feel like laptops and phones are often just a social convention, a way of feeling less exposed when relating with people. If I have something in my hand then I feel like I’m doing something important and productive, even though in reality it’s usually just facebook… it’s important to take a break so you can notice when your use of technology is good and when it’s taking away from things that are important.”

We see the longing for connection among many students who, on discovering Open Circle, talk about how delighted they are to find a group where they can talk about the search for meaning in their lives. Most feel alone in this pursuit. This is also a common theme in the individual Spiritual Companioning that Jeff and I offer, where some say they feel they are the only ones with struggles. This sense of isolation isn’t surprising given the trend towards less face-to-face interaction between young people. Recently a student mentioned how she’s seen one of her roommates only twice all term. Some student houses don’t even have common living space, having been subdivided into rooms where each lives their own life independently. And the individualized use of technology plays a role. I remember being a little surprised this September when a student shared how difficult it was to not have internet in their student house for the first few days after moving in. She explained how “there’s nothing to do.” When I asked her whether her roommates had found other things to do together, she said: “No – we each just went to campus and downloaded movies and things we could do at home by ourselves so we’re not bored.”

Above:Josh (right) from Open Circle initiated regular drum circles this term. Below: The circle quickly grows as the drumming takes place out in public around or in the student center.

You can see why much of what we do in Student Open Circles is a radical breath of fresh air for many students. Perhaps this is why I often hear them say that they let out a sigh of relief when entering one of our meetings or groups. Simply coming into the space evokes a different way of being. And why it’s significant to hear about the little changes that are being made in their personal lives – like a student who has decided to take time for daily spiritual practice while turning off her cell phone. Or students who are committed to building meaningful friendships with their housemates.

Students are also finding deep connection in our experiences of volunteering together, interacting with peers and with those we serve whose stories are often quite different from our own. As Richa’s story illustrates, we discover ourselves as part of a greater whole through service. Recently we had a discussion night on the documentary Fierce Light: where spirit meets action. Here Archbish-op Desmond Tutu talks about Ubuntu, a South African concept that translates as “I am what I am because of who we all are” and speaks to the fact that we can’t be a human in isolation. “A person who understands this,” he says, “does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they are in a greater whole, and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.” He concludes, “What dehumanizes you, inexorably dehumanizes me. And what elevates you, elevates me.”

Thank you for your support as we create spaces where students realize their connection to a greater whole through opportunities to serve, to connect with peers, and to find guidance on their spiritual journey.