9/11/13: Seeking connection in a "connected" world

Sep 11, 2013 | Updated Nov 11, 2013

Today is September 11. That date is seared in the memory of all Americans. I would guess that the only dates on the calendar that hold greater familiarity, at least for our generation, might be December 25th or the 4th of July; and they, for very different and far more positive reasons. It was twelve years ago today, yet 9/11 continues to tug at my heart strings every time I think of it, although the remembrances and memorial services are far fewer and more muted than they were in the past.

Whenever I think of this date, two feelings come to mind. First, is of the precarious nature of life. How everything can, and sometimes does, change in a heartbeat. Such changes happen every day in our lives: a birth, an illness, an accident, a transition, a death. 9/11 just brought us to the collective realization that such life changing events can happen on a massive scale. Instead of one individual hearing the news and swallowing hard, that day it was an entire nation. 3,000 people did the most mundane thing one can imagine that day - they went to work. But on that day, they didn't return. And 300 million people felt the recoil of that loss in a very personal way.

My second feeling when I think of 9/11 is of community and connection. I vividly remember sitting with my wife and literally dozens of other parents outside my daughter's school twelve years ago. We had arrived far too early for pick-up. But as the many parents sat in the schoolyard waiting for their young ones to come out, no one was impatient or bothered. We sat silently, connected to one another in our common grief and our equally common desire to see our children's faces when they would finally stream out of the old brick building that was their safe haven. On any other day, ten minutes of waiting might have engendered impatience. On this day, we would have patiently waited forever to feel their hugs. Simply seeing their faces was reward enough. Our sense of connection to our children, and, to one another made the quiet waiting almost spiritual.

Twelve years hence that sense of connectedness feels more elusive than ever. We are all wired up and technologically enabled, but somehow we seem to have lost the point. Smart phones have dumbed us all down when it comes to interacting with others and understanding what being connected really means. If you haven't seen it, take a moment to watch Charlene deGuzman's thought- provoking viral video "I Forgot My Phone." deGuzman captures in 2 minutes and 11 seconds what the smartphone has done to connect us to technology and de-couple us from ourselves and others.

Last month, researchers at the University of Michigan released a first of its kind study on the largest social network in the world: Facebook. With a billion users, this technological marvel was supposed to make us feel connected to anyone, anywhere, at any time. After all, Facebook's mission is "to make the world more open and connected" - and in some ways it certainly does. But unfortunately, the Michigan researchers found that among the college-age adults they studied, the more they used Facebook, the worse they felt. According to nearly all other research I'm aware of, meaningful connections and relationships should have just the opposite effect: they make us feel better. So are we really connected 24/7 these days?

On September 11, 2001 technology did play a critical role in keeping us informed and in some cases helping us connect to loved ones. It helped us reach out to others to seek reassurance that they were okay. The real connection was person-to-person in the form of listening, waiting, grieving together and hugging; being immersed in a shared experience with others. Technology didn't make those connections, at best it facilitated them. In fact, in most cases it would have been seen as an unwelcome intruder in a sacred moment.

The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney died last week. In one of his most beloved poems which he wrote about his mother when she died, Heaney recalled a moment when as a young boy, he and his mother sat together peeling potatoes - about as low-tech a human experience as one can imagine. But Heaney's ability to convey the connection he felt at that moment, demonstrates why no technology is needed if connection is what we seek.

When all the others were away at Mass

I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.

They broke the silence, let fall one by one

Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:

Cold comforts set between us, things to share

Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.

And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes

From each other's work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives--
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

An excerpt from Clearances by Seamus Heaney