As I’ve written before—and as I certainly don’t need to point out to anyone reading this—we are living in very difficult times. Violence, prejudice and oppression, and environmental destruction are all around us. Political atrocities and scandals bombard our news feeds daily, if not hourly. It can be very easy, under these conditions, to lose a sense of hope for humanity. Many people I know are feeling depressed and desolate about the possibility of positive change.
On a more personal scale, many of us are also struggling with interpersonal connections. Many of my friends are longing for close romantic connections, and/or mourning the loss of such connections that are ending. Many people are also feeling disconnected from family, friends, or coworkers because of political differences that seem to feel more stark with each passing day.
For the past several months, I have been personally struggling with both of these: the large-scale and personal-scale breakdown of human connection. I feel it keenly. It informs my listening and coaching practices as I work with clients who are facing similar struggles. I find myself struggling with a sense of deep loneliness and despair. As I reach out to others to talk about it, I find that these feelings are very commonplace.
So what can we do about all of this? What kinds of things can we do to sustain ourselves, each other, and humanity as a whole?
Lately I’ve been thinking about accountability. I perceive that we have a deficit of accountability in the world at present, and I believe it contributes to our current state of affairs.
On the large-scale level, I think most people can agree that many politicians lack accountability to the people they ostensibly serve. This has become increasingly obvious in the past few months, as the White House public phone-comment line was shut down, and several members of Congress have stopped holding public town hall meetings in their districts because they don’t want to face the opposition and tough questions they are likely to encounter in such meetings.
When our leaders fail to take accountability for their leadership, we are all left feeling vulnerable and uneasy. How can our needs be met? How can our voices be heard?
Meanwhile, on the small-scale social end of things, I have watched over the past few years as texting has replaced voice talking, Facebook messaging is replacing the longer-form email messages I used to enjoy taking the time to craft and savor, and “swipe-culture” dating apps are replacing meaningful opportunities to get to know people with whom we may seek to share intimacy.
It is in these smaller-scale communication realms that we can hurt others, and be hurt, most easily, via a lack of attention to each other’s humanity and needs. And it is in these same realms where we can be most easily and quickly empowered to shift the culture in a positive direction. Political actions of various kinds are absolutely necessary, and I strongly support any efforts to communicate with our elected officials, whether by phone, email, online petitions, in-the-street protests, contributing financially to activist groups that are working in strategic ways… etc. I absolutely encourage you to do—or continue to do—all of these things.
But in this environment of increasing despair, we need our interpersonal connections more than ever. I am going to make an uncharacteristically personal and vulnerable plea here:
Please, take the time to support your friends and acquaintances. We all need it more than ever. The easiest and most effective way to do this, speaking from my own experience, is to reply to texts in a timely fashion. It may sound simple or obvious, but I find that it rarely happens. It can be so easy, in our busy-ness and distraction, to see a text from a friend, think, “Oh, cool, So-and-so! I’ll reply later.” But then much more time may go by than we had initially intended, and So-and-so may be really wishing for connection in the meantime.
If someone you care about texts you, text them back. Promptly. If they have asked a question and you don’t have the answer yet, you can write, “Hey, great to hear from you! I don’t have the answer to your question yet, but I will get back to you as soon as I do.” (And then, when you get the answer, get back to them. Promptly.)
If someone contacts you on a dating site, and you are interested, let them know. Promptly. If they ask you on a date, let them know, as soon as you can, whether the date and time they have suggested will work for you. This is not a cultural time when we can afford to play “I don’t want to look too eager” games. If you’re interested, respect the person by responding to their messages in a timely fashion.
You may not have the time—or the inclination—to respond personally to people who contact you if you don’t feel drawn to them… but where possible, I also encourage you to take a moment to acknowledge these people’s humanity and courage in approaching you. It only takes a moment to write, “Hey, thanks for your note. I want to be honest, I’m not feeling drawn to you romantically, but I wanted to say that I’m flattered that you reached out, and I wish you all the best.”
I’ll be vulnerable and speak for myself, here (though I also know I am not alone): These simple courtesies from friends and acquaintances can make a powerful difference in whether I have a sense that I’m a part of the larger community of humanity. When they are absent—especially several times in a row, from several people in a row—it can be very easy to feel dejected, and from there to draw the conclusion that no one cares, and I am going it alone.
In these apocalyptic times, that can be an unbearably—and unnecessarily—lonely feeling. As we do our work to shift the culture forward in positive directions, let’s please take good care of each other’s hearts. We’re in this together.