Note: This post will be published as my article, Beginnings, in the May/June Issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine. It is printed here with permission.
“Don’t confuse connection—feeling a part of something larger than yourself, feeling close to another person or group, feeling welcomed and understood—with contacts.”
Edward Hallowell in Connect
Many years ago, when I had the opportunity to interview her, Kathie Dannemiller, an icon in the field of Organizational Development, uttered a phrase I will never forget: “I don’t want my life to be a throw away line.” She was nearing the end of her formal career and having difficulty discerning if her life meant anything. She passed away several years later and I’m sure the question remained for her.
Kathie Dannemiller changed our fundamental understanding of organizations, and touched the lives of tens of thousands of people who work in them. In the process, she captured the hearts of hundreds of us and changed what we knew of ourselves. If it is difficult for Kathie to find the meaning of her life, how much more difficult must it be for the rest of us. Perhaps I am the only other person besides Kathie who wonders whether the time I spend on this planet will have added to its magnificence or detracted from it. I know I have done many things on both sides of that ledger of life.
When Edward Hallowell points to the difference between contact and connection, he is also pointing us towards ways to find the meaning of our lives. Even though I was interviewing Kathie, she had a marvelous way of making me feel welcome and understood. But the welcoming and understanding came when you were in her presence. You had to sit with her, look her in the eyes, and have her look back into yours. It was in those times of deep connection, not contact, that she could tell you what she saw in you that emanated from deep inside.
Much of the world is now delivered to us in bits and bytes splashed across screens attached to our computers and cell phones. It is the world of the Internet, texting, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, flikr, LinkedIn, Plaxo and so many other “platforms” through which we are told we can now connect with the world. We live in an era in which we can trade missives with hundreds…thousands…or perhaps even millions of people by pressing a few keys on our electronic weaponry. And when I do, not one of those people is able to stare into my eyes and tell me what they see in me that I am incapable of self-witnessing.
Don’t misunderstand; these electronic bully pulpits enable me to correspond with people with whom I might otherwise lose touch. A high school classmate I had not heard from in over 35 years, I now discover is editor of a newspaper in New England. He makes an annual mission trip to care for an African village immeasurably less fortunate than the one he now calls home. Judi and I made a small donation to help purchase mosquito netting to protect the children of that village. What a gift to affirm and acknowledge the work of someone I was close to so many years ago. But how much more could I learn—about him, about myself and about the world—if we could sit together over several cups of coffee eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart?
If any generation should have benefited from this new world, it would be those for whom it is second nature…the first generation to have known no other. Yet, when a large group of high school students was recently asked if they had ever considered suicide, I was stunned to see the number who had.
I wonder in this new world—a world in which we are challenged to condense our wisdom into 140 character “tweets”—if we are overwhelmed by the number of people we can contact, but underwhelmed and saddened by our loss of connection.