In an unlisted YouTube video published this weekend, Mitch Daniels gave his virtual commencement speech to Purdue grads. The 12 minute video is well worth a watch.
In it, Daniels talks about a hobby horse of mine: loneliness and disconnection despite seemingly endless ‘connection’. He notes “Absent a little special effort, you will rarely make friends different from yourselves.”
“I’m concerned you won’t make friends at all,” he says. This to an audience connected almost constantly by phones. His general advice is to turn off your phone, tune out video screens, and have more personal contact with people. The benefits of which can stave off depression, suicide, and as he notes — add years to your life. Prolonged loneliness can be as deadly as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day or heavy drinking.
The effort to make friends is hard. And Daniels says he’s not been a good role model. “I’ve not devoted the time I should have to deepen acquantancines into friendships. I’ve let the call of work get in the way. I’ve told myself that jobs of broad responsibility mean one can’t get too close to coworkers and colleagues. I’ve procrastinated and skipped too many chances to spend time with people I admire and love. I regret it and I’m worse for it.”
Admittedly, he notes he thought of this speech as early as December before COVID-19 entered the lexicon. Adding to the challenges of deeper connection with people is the cumbersome and expensive ways we’ve designed ourselves away from people, made worse by the pandemic. But even before the pandemic, cities and neighborhoods bifurcated by small highways, sprawl, and the rising cost of moving around has left teens and young people without an easy way to be around each other. More to the point, many people of all incomes have designed their lives around the notion that work is all their is because we need the money to maintain a lifestyle. For some that might be food and energy. For others, it might just be to maintain a pricey car or redo a deck or patio we’ll never use for much.
Social media is not a proxy for us to “live our best lives”. People’s lives are often tragic, sad, and void of the constant prettiness of people or place so often presented to us by others.
The feelings of connectedness can be mitigated, Daniels says, by faith and marriage. I don’t disagree with that, but if one or both are not your cup of tea, even just making time to cook dinner for others can be equally beneficial. That takes two people, however. I’ve invited people to a home-cooked dinner in the past and people look at me like I have three heads.
My long-time wish has been for people I care about to reach out with regularity. Write a letter. Make a FaceTime call. Invite people to dinner — without phones or other distractions. I imagine most of my messages and emails are like yours: a constant reminder of people reaching out only when they want or need something.
A person’s success in life depends on who a person knows, and more specifically, how well you know them. That goes for our careers and our health. We can’t truly know people through a Facebook or LinkedIn profile. But darned if people aren’t trying to make anti-social media into something it isn’t. The sooner people realize Facebook and their ilk exist for people like me to sell stuff to people like you, the better.