Rekindling Human Contact in the Digital Age | New York Times
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How does it feel to enter a bar and see a line of patrons immersed in their devices, thumb-typing away? Or to step into a subway car where half of the passengers are oblivious to one another, staring down into their phones? Even photographs of scenes like these evoke feelings of alienation. When Sherry Turkle, a psychologist who directs the M.I.T. Initiative on Technology and Self, examined the effects of digital technology on our lives, she gave her book the title “Alone Together.”
The emerging research about social isolation is sobering. Among people young and old in the United States and Britain, researchers are finding significant increases in loneliness. In 1985, one in 10 Americans said they had no intimate with whom to discuss important matters; in 2004, the figure was one in four.
This is not just dismaying, it’s hazardous. A recent study, examining data from 3.4 million people, found that people who were lonely, living alone, or socially isolated had a significantly higher risk of premature death. During the past 15 years, the American suicide rate has also increased markedly: for young people, it is the third leading cause of death, and nearly one in six high school students has seriously considered suicide.
These developments can’t be attributed solely to technology or any other single factor, of course. Because of major shifts in living patterns, more than a quarter of American households — triple the 1950 percentage — now contain just one person. Young Americans are experiencing high levels of stress and depression. And tens of millions have grown disconnected from traditional institutions. In 2012, the Pew Research Center published “ ‘Nones’ on the Rise,” reporting that one in five Americans, and a third of adults under 30, do not affiliate with a religious community. In the brief time since that study came out, some 7.5 million more individuals have drifted away from active religious life.
How are people filling the gap? That’s a question that two master’s degree candidates at Harvard Divinity School, Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, have taken up in an intriguing new report titled, “How We Gather,” an early effort to understand the landscape of new institutions that millennials are creating to meet their needs for community, purpose and, in some cases, spiritual experience.
The project began, fittingly, with a spreadsheet. “I saw a few of these organizations starting to emerge, and there seemed to be something happening,” said Thurston. She and ter Kuile began tracking them and discovered more and more groups, with forms and goals that varied widely. Some, like The Sanctuaries or another private nonprofit organization that calls itself the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, focus on ways to use arts and culture in the service of social justice or spiritual development. Others, like the Millennial Trains Project or Live in the Grey, focus on helping people deepen their sense of purpose, build relationships, and prepare themselves to effect social transformation. Others create communities through the lenses of fitness, yoga or meditation.
Despite the diversity, Thurston and ter Kuile found that the groups shared common themes. Collectively, they were developing effective ways to speak to young people who wish to be more closely connected with, and accountable to, others — but remain mistrustful of creeds and reject the idea that life can be encapsulated by one religious label or faith community.
The groups were also responding to the inauthenticity that marks so much of online life. “There’s a growing divide between the public presentation of self and the reality behind the mask,” said ter Kuile. “We’re constantly being called on to present our C.V. selves, the shiny, all-together product that we put up for the world to see. What we’re seeing is communities that are gathering to allow that private flawed self to emerge.”
Consider The Dinner Party, a community of people mainly in their 20s and 30s who have experienced a significant loss. Participants gather at potluck dinners for honest conversations about living with loss. The idea emerged after two friends in Los Angeles, Carla Fernandez and Lennon Flowers, discovered they had both gone through the deaths of parents and had rarely spoken about it even with friends; both yearned to connect with others who had had similar experience
Since then, they have catalyzed hundreds of these dinners in 26 cities, and the organization has helped 75 people (mainly in the United States, but also in Canada, Spain and Brazil) learn how to host them. The group has also published a book that includes helpful rituals and recipes. Over the past few years, the dinners have broadened from primary family loss to other forms of loss, like a loss during pregnancy or the loss of a partner.
“These experiences can be deeply isolating,” said Flowers, whose mother died of lung cancer when Flowers was a senior at the University of North Carolina. “My coping mechanism was very much about staying really busy,” she said. “I grew expert at never talking about it and protecting other people from having ‘deer in the headlights’ moments of, ‘Oh God, I don’t know what to say to you.’ The question is how to take experiences that cut you off from others and use them as a source of connection.”
The Dinner Party gatherings run counter to ‘support group’ stereotypes. There are no folding chairs in basements. They are held in dining rooms or backyards, and the food is home cooked. Currently, about 80 percent of participants are women. The conversations are not structured, but are grounded in core principles that hosts adhere to, so that people will feel safe sharing experiences of extreme vulnerability. “Conversations like this require a level of rigor,” says Flowers.
The ground rules include: Everything said is confidential. Nobody is obliged to speak. Stories are not to be compared or judged; each stands as its own experience. Hosts ask participants to speak in the first person and to avoid offering advice or rushing in to fill a silence during tense moments. (Many of the guidelines are informed by the Circle of Trust approach, developed by the Center for Courage and Renewal, founded by Parker J. Palmer.)
The dinners are not meant to substitute for therapy or spiritual guidance. “It’s about building a community with whom you don’t have to hide any part of your story,” says Flowers. “We’re seeing this massive push away from institutions, but the human need to be heard and to have communities in times of need is still there.” (Note: The Dinner Party will be hosting special events in San Francisco on May 12 and in New York City on June 3, tracked by the Twitter hashtag #LossIs.)
Read previous contributions to this series.
Another group, the Millennial Trains Project, acts as a kind of roving symposium, in which 20 to 25 people embark on a 10-day train journey across the United States, with the goal of building their capacity to advance a social change project. Founded by Patrick Dowd, a former analyst at JP Morgan, the idea was inspired by the Jagriti Yatra in India, a train journey that seeks to awaken its participants’ entrepreneurial spirit in support of India’s development.
During the journeys, which begin in a West Coast city and end in Washington, D.C., participants learn from mentors in fields like health care, policy formation, environmental science or entrepreneurship, and disembark in cities to meet with community leaders, issue experts, and mayors. One participant, Matthew Stepp, an energy policy analyst, used his journey to meet with energy innovators and tour national energy laboratories; he later helped write legislation, the America Innovates Act, which is now pending in the Senate and is intended to modernize the labs.
About two-thirds of participants receive scholarships from the project’s lead sponsor, NBC Universal, or from the State Department as foreign Fulbright students. This year’s cohort includes individuals working to reduce youth unemployment, promote best practices in urban agriculture, and investigate the role of Islamic cultural centers in the United States.
“The project was not designed with a religious element,” said Dowd. “But as a community we came to see that there is a spirit that’s imbued in coming together, attracting people from so many backgrounds, fostering understanding at the human level, and helping people to discover how they want to live their lives.”
The Sanctuaries, based in Washington, D.C., is more explicitly focused on responding to young people’s desire for spiritual connection. It was established three years ago by Erik Martinez Resly, a Unitarian minister who is also an artist, community organizer and skateboarder. He initiated The Sanctuaries to promote spiritual growth through the arts by bringing together millennials across lines of religion, race and gender orientation.
Resly made a conscious decision not to house The Sanctuaries in a fixed location. “D.C. is pretty segregated demographically,” he said. “We want to be as accessible as possible to people of all backgrounds.” The group holds gatherings and events across the city in homes, houses of worship, community spaces, and dance and yoga studios. The events’ names express their variety. They include: Sermon Slams, Spring Walks, Holistic Health Workshops, Black Arts Reading Circle, Hip-Hop for Social Change and Meditation Through Film.
“The 20s and 30s are a time when people are asking big questions,” says Resly, who was influenced by the anthropologist Veena Das’s writings about “ordinary ethics,” which connect philosophical problems with the problems of daily life. “Many people are struggling; they’re unemployed or feel undervalued. We make space for what Cornel West called the ‘raw funky skanky stuff of life.’ ”
Osa Obaseki, a hip-hop artist who leads the group’s performance team, adds: “One of the main needs that we fulfill is creating a space for people to explore our differences in a way that is comfortable and inviting. That really goes a long way. One of the biggest things that I’ve learned is that our differences can really be a source of unity. Before, I looked at differences as more of a challenge; but now I feel like they make things more human and, in a sense, easier.”
Although many millennials are religiously unaffiliated, most remain interested in spiritual concerns. Two-thirds of unaffiliated Americans still believe in God or a universal spirit and more than 20 percent pray daily. “There’s a whole wide-ranging space within the unaffiliated,” says Thurston. “People still want to share the journey of being human.”
Many questions remain about what form that journey will take amid the new networked reality. “The landscape we’re mapping in ‘How We Gather’ is emerging and not very robust yet,” says ter Kuile. “We don’t have good language to describe it. And by and large the communities we’ve found are middle class or upwardly mobile white people. So at the moment this is exploratory, our best attempt to try to encapsulate what we’re seeing.”
David Bornstein is the author of “How to Change the World,” which has been published in 20 languages, and “The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank,” and is co-author of “Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know.” He is a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.
Originally published at opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com on May 8, 2015.