People Are Connections

I’ve just returned from a few days in NJ, helping with a family reunion. It was a pretty intense time – a lot of fun, but mostly intense in a variety of ways. By pulling me away from my work and my normal world, this visit sharpened my perspective…

Some context: I’m the 5th out of 6 children, from a large Irish Catholic family in southern NJ. My parents and most of my siblings still live there, and a large assortment of cousins and other relatives live nearby or within a day’s drive. All the people in my immediate and extended family are very unique – personality, interests, strengths, and flaws. Being around so many of them at once is a bit overwhelming.

During this trip I tried to focus on how people change with context. It seems to me that throwing people together in pairs or groups tends to change which aspects of their personalities get expressed. Whatever it is that I envision as “myself” is fluid, changeable, interdependent. None of us have fixed identities.

Speaking with one particular person you may become more relaxed or defensive. Your body language, tone of voice, and emotional state may shift as new people join the discussion. The history of all your interactions with a specific person sets the backdrop and affects the tone of what’s happening between you now.

It’s one thing to consider this in philosophical terms. It’s another to see it happen, especially with people you’ve known all or most of your life. To see patterns re-establishing themselves, changing gradually. To see a cousin who was always reclusive and silent suddenly being smiling and open in the presence of his new wife. To see your parents feelings more clearly since they’ve grown old and you’ve grown up, the veil of heirarchy in tatters. To see small children gradually warm up to the presence of unfamiliar adults, as they start to sense the patterns. To see photos of small boys, uncles you never knew because they died young – and yet they’re still present. They still cause ripples in gatherings of people who knew them.

Yesterday, on my last day of my trip, one of my parent’s oldest and dearest friends died after a yearlong battle with cancer. This was a woman who, as a child, survived Berlin during WWII. At about the same time, my niece (who’s at a difficult time in her life) gave birth to her second child. Two people who never met, one leaving this world as the other enters. Yet they both affected me, and my family, by the overlapping ripples they’ve caused in the web of interpersonal connections. It’s purely coincidental, and also meaningful.

Sunday, one of my oldest and dearest friends joined me for a ramble in the NJ Pine Barrens. We both love the outdoors. I grew up with a love of nature mainly due to this hushed labyrinth of scrub pines, cedars, blueberry bushes, sandy soil, and rust-colored streams and lakes. The pine barrens are a thoroughly unique ecosystem, and they’re vanishing mainly because their context (the character and use of the surrounding lands) has changed so drastically. But on Sunday, Chris and I could still enjoy them – and talk in a deep relaxed way that we rarely get to to share due to distance and the complexity of our lives.

At some level, all events, actions, and communications are deeply personal, because they affect who we are – within ourselves and in context with others. This, I suppose, is why I care so much about communciation and interaction, how we learn about our world and the meanings we make of it.

It seems that when I take the time to focus on connections between people, meanings and patterns appear. Even flaws and stress are an important part of the picture. I appreciate this world more, and I sense my own place in it more securely.

So even though I prattle on here about technology, media, etc., please understand what compels me toward those fields: people. I like to see people connecting in a more conscious way, even though these experiences are often imperfect or uncomfortable. Every time we connect – and especially every time we empathize, if only for a moment – our world gets wider and stronger. We can accomplish more.

I hope this helps explain my particular obsessions.

7 thoughts on People Are Connections

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  1. I very thought-provoking piece. My only problem in thinking about people, communication and technology is that I often feel technology hinders rather than helps communication. Often it provides a false sense of intimacy; a false sense of connection. Nowhere is this quite so insidious as with the web and email.

    It’s difficult to ‘disguise’ yourself in person and/or on a telephone or via a radio or podcast interview. It’s far easier through plain old text. I sometimes feel technology today false a false sense of friendship. The person on the other end of the line could be anyone.

    Of course, the person sitting across from you at a party could be anyone, too.

    I don’t know. It’s just something I muse over from time to time. I find the “relationships” I form online have far less staying power than the relationships I form in person.

  2. Good article, if only you hadn’t mentioned the pine barrens. Having grown up
    on their fringes (18 long years), I’d be happy never to see another pine tree
    again for the rest of my life, although I always loved the cedar swamps and bogs,
    old cranberry bogs, cat-tail marshes, etc.

    Sure, I had many pleasant times in “The Pine Barrens”, but I just wish they
    had more oak, maple, birch, and cedar trees than those sappy pine trees.

    And now, they’re getting an excess of what we used to call “city slickers”.
    The cut down hundreds of acres of pine and scrub oak, pour concrete slabs on
    the ground and then the new “residents” whine that the floors are cold in
    the winter… the builder (Lennar/U.S. Home) is based in Miami, Florida. Oh well.

    — Jack Krupansky

  3. Thanks, Amy, for your reflections on people and relationships. I also enjoyed the insights that Tom and Jack provide in the comments.

    A little while ago I had a very pleasant visit with a friend from school. We had established contact by phone and then came this opportunity to meet in person.

    Soon after we settled down for a cup of coffee, another friend showed up unexpectedly! It was a surprise, but I recognised him instantly. He was the person that I was a quarter century ago.

    People mature and evolve, often in subtle ways. A lot of literature is about that. But to know directly in a compressed and not-entirely verbal manner, what literature tries to capture with much labour and craft, was a rather nice experience.

    We exchanged notes about how our lives had progressed, but for me, the specific details were less important. What was more fascinating was the discovery of how we’d matured and where we’d reached against reference co-ordinates from the past.

    I noticed new components in her personality that undoubtedly developed from later experiences, but suspect that others had been there all along. I simply hadn’t perceived them before. Of course, there were the delightful elements that had remained unchanged.

    It got me thinking about two things:

    How tiresome it is to meet a friend who’s still standing where you left him. Life is about growth: think about the pleasure of seeing children grow and you’d know what I mean.

    What shapes a person depends upon choices that he or she makes. For example, who he or she marries or associates with in other meaningful ways. But that is another big area to explore and I won’t extend a comment that is already way too long.

    Thanks everyone!

    Sunil

  4. Tom wrote earlier, “My only problem in thinking about people, communication and technology is that I often feel technology hinders rather than helps communication. Often it provides a false sense of intimacy; a false sense of connection. Nowhere is this quite so insidious as with the web and email.”

    Personally I think that depends on the people involved. I know that some people communicate best through writing, they really open up that way. They will write things that they might never say.

    Also, I recently caught part of a PBS special on autism in which the narration was someone reading the words written by an autistic woman. Through this technological intervention, her human ability to connect blossomed in a way that probably happens rarely in face-to-face contact.

    So while in-person contact is generally the most rich, vivid, and powerful type of interpersonal experience, that is not always so.

    I prefer to make contact with people through a variety of means. The overall experience is richer, and you get to see more sides of the same person.

  5. My 19-year old daughter, Lori Ann passed away on May 4, 2005 after a 6-month battle with a rare cancer.

    During this period I posted updates to her web site at http://www.loriblakeley.name in order to keep her family, friends, and folks that learned of her struggle from the web site.

    On one particular 24-hour period just after she passed away her web site logged nearly 10,000 hits!

    Her philosophy for life was miraculously transmitted to thousands of “cyber-friends” that empathized with her struggle.

    That mode of sharing and communication was invaluable during a journey such as hers.

    Her devoted and loving father,

    Larry Blakeley
    Dallas, Texas

  6. Which is really the bubble? (And is it bursting?)

    So are blogs just a passing fad, as Kevin Maney claims? His USA Today column stirred up a minor tempest in business blog circles, mainly for assertions such as:

    So, yeah, blogs are cool. Anything that gives people a voice benefits society and makes us