COMMENTARY: The value of connections

HODGDON ISLAND, Maine — For our three-night sojourn in coastal Maine, far from crowds and constructive work, we stayed at … Continued

HODGDON ISLAND, Maine — For our three-night sojourn in coastal Maine, far from crowds and constructive work, we stayed at a lovely bed-and-breakfast here called the Hodgdon Island Inn.

Once a sea captain’s home, it overlooks a small drawbridge to Barter’s Island. Farther along a seacoast marked by islands and coves lies the seasonally popular town of Boothbay Harbor.

I love the world of B&Bs. Each room is furnished in eclectic style, not hotel same-old. As an early riser, I like sitting by myself in a real living room with a coffee machine and wi-fi.

Best of all is breakfast: Excellent food, and for a frequent traveler accustomed to anonymity, the welcome opportunity to chat with other guests.

One day, my wife and I shared a table with David and Joan, visiting from Lexington, Mass. For a delightful hour, we chatted about this and that.

Later, gathered in the living room around apple cobbler, we ended the day chatting with a couple from Massachusetts and a librarian from Connecticut.

The next morning, we connected with a Canadian couple, who, like us, were using Maine’s leisurely pace to decompress from stressful jobs.

In today’s workplace, connecting is all the rage. From high-octane collaboration with colleagues to after-work checking-in, people are finding manifold ways to break through the isolation and anonymity of modern life.

Some of these connections are mating rituals, of course. Some are professional networking, designed to promote our “personal brands.” Some are antidotes to the loneliness that marks our lives.

On the one hand, connecting is as old as time. We are social creatures who need each other for safety, family and a sense of purpose. Whether we link up around cobbler or a computer network, we act out a fundamental need for companionship.

On the other hand, connecting violates an economy that largely exists to keep us isolated, lonely, compulsive in spending, and dependent on virtual substitutes for real companionship.

Television offers “reality” programs that trivialize the human experience in order to sell ads. Automobiles offer cars with cockpits designed to encourage solitary driving. Online shopping offers total control to the consumer while exempting merchants from the expense of building stores and hiring staff. Production workers manage robots, rather than bend their backs in teams. Office workers occupy small cubicles or work from home.

Meanwhile, higher education is moving out of the social realm — classroom, campus walks, student union — and onto the kitchen table.

The prize is efficiency, but the cost is loneliness. Employers win the prize, and their people pay the cost.

Now people seem to be pushing back. The coveted 20-something consumers are shunning automobiles and seeking connection-minded housing in downtowns, rather than suburban isolation.

The typical tech workplace features shared worktables that promote interaction and encourage creativity. It’s death to cubicles. Bosses sit among their staffs, rather than behind power-doors.

Not everyone gets connected. Many older adults find themselves isolated in suburban homes that they cannot sell. Many young working-class adults find themselves left out of the tech culture and sensing that steady employment might never come along.

Churches struggle to get their heads out of the past and to do more than smile at the front door. Meanwhile, younger seekers gravitate to connection-minded fellowships that promote group life and shared religious experience.

Many find that virtual connection isn’t enough. Social media are coming up short in providing any sense of companionship.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

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