Having just returned from my high school reunion, I got to experience first-hand, the leveling effect of time on people. My high school years weren’t filled with the stuff of musicals or angst-ridden movie teens, but my coming of age was replete with cliques and hormone-induced drama just like every other school. In walking up to a group of classmates after thirty years, you no longer see the jocks, nerds, or girls you were too timid to ask out. You just see a bunch of people, some of which have a vaguely familiar look to them and some of them even have a name that falls out of the cobwebs of the addled middle-aged brain!
The lines of our faces seem to be more pronounced in spite of the latest overpriced cosmetic unguents and surgical procedures and to be sure, quite a number of us show signs of having weathered a storm or two. Everyone had filled out and a few of us kept filling out…although I noted one guy who had been rather rotund in high school looking really good. I actually didn’t recognize him at all until someone said his name and then the face came through like one of those magic eye 3-D puzzles. The big 80s hair had been replaced by low-maintenance cuts or in the case of some, receding hairlines.
Instead of comparing possessions or bank balances, we were sharing pictures of loved ones, tales of overcoming, and smiles. The passage of time brought us together instead of keeping us in our own little groups. At the end of the day, isn’t that what life is all about? It’s simply relationships, families, and community. I met classmates who had formed the more traditional family and were enjoying the fruits of their love in multiple generations. But more often than not, few of us—even in conservative Utah—were still in those traditional families. Some of us divorced and remarried and some of us never married, happy to live a solitary life to pursue a career or a life dream. Some of us found our love in someone of the same gender and some of us are simply living with someone else with nothing but authentic affection and commitment tying the relationship together. Nobody was particularly concerned about the politics of someone’s relationship, just that they were happy and healthy.
Sure, it’s naïve of me to think that this kind of harmony extends past that evening at the Salt Lake Hilton, yet I do believe at some level, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Rather it’s what should be the norm. You see, the thing that brought us together outside of the obvious was simply that we were face-to-face and we wanted to reconnect. As I look in our technologically-dependent culture, it’s clear that what has driven us apart is the lack of human interaction. Unfortunately, there are those who will use that particular lack to ensure the influential retain their sway on their unwitting subjects. Powerbrokers and kingmakers alike know how to dehumanize and disenfranchise, but there’s something about human contact that levels the playing field. Seeing the lines on another’s faces force us to recognize that each wrinkle was earned at a cost—some certainly from age, but as well some from pain. And empathy is something a statistic can never impart.
It’s far easier to log on to Facebook than it is to walk next door and sit down with your neighbor. It’s far easier to type out feedback to an article that presents an opposing view to our own rather than to employ critical thought and pull out the points we do happen to agree with. It’s far easier for a politician to jump on a plane and go to the home district for the routine extended weekend than to pound out genuine bipartisan legislation that requires actual compromise and empathy for constituents.
The Internet has made it possible to keep current on so many things in an instant and with the advent of social networking, we’re able to participate in a sanitized version of the lives of our family, friends, and acquaintances. The Internet has given a voice to those who were the invisible people of yesterday. Yet that same power has had an unanticipated effect of driving us back into our own adult cultural, political, and philosophical cliques. While it’s no surprise to anyone that people congregate with those much like themselves, the thing that is missing from the equation is the civility that comes from knowing our neighbors. We may disagree with one another, but the level of openly displayed rancor has a de-sensitizing effect and it redefines what had been heretofore normal and civil—and not in a good way. Modern day messiahs of hatred are ascending by the day, appealing to pliable minds, inciting them into a frenzy of moralistic thinking that is based on blatantly incorrect figures, manipulative theology, and outright fear, reminiscent of pre-WWII Germany.
It’s just far easier to be anonymous than to forge real relationships. Relationships, families, and communities are messy. They require that we become vulnerable and show that our hairlines and wrinkles are the prizes for working through difficult issues, that our scars are indeed beautiful because they prove we heal. And they require that we listen more than we speak. Sure, we get angry and we fight and cry together, but in time, we remember the important things. It's time to unplug and reconnect with each other. The entertainment will still be there later, but the people in our lives may not be. We have to make a positive difference…while there’s time.
This posting was originally published August 30, 2011. I've split my writing into different blogs: Opinion, The Leukemia Chronicles, and other Freelance Writing