This isn’t the graduation you pictured during those long hours and months and years of study, the thousands of tests and the endless stream of homework assignments. There are no hugs from teachers, no fist-bumps with friends, and no extended family coming to town to help celebrate your achievement. Those things have been taken from you, through no fault of your own, by a pandemic that has changed everything.
But what the coronavirus can’t change is human nature. That’s why, even in these strange days, I can give you advice I can confidently say will help ensure that you live a healthier, happier and more fulfilled life: Find your people — and not online. Build community — not connections. Cultivate your social capital — not your social media presence.
Community could be the first great casualty of the COVID-19 outbreak. But it was on life-support long before this. In his book, “Bowling Alone,” published in 2000, Robert Putnam shows that well before COVID-19, we were already practicing a kind of social distancing. We stopped joining things.
There’s a word for the richness of life that real community involvement brings: “social capital.”
As Putnam points out, “Social capital makes us smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy.” Yet in recent years, “the bonds of our community have withered.”
We’ve seen that not just in participation in formal institutions — from churches to PTAs — but also in our involvement in less formal ones, including, yes, bowling leagues. And we’re poorer in all ways for that.
My advice, then, is to become a joiner. And do not mistake connections for community. Facebook is fine for keeping up with friends and family. But it’s no substitute for in-person relationships and tangible trust. As Putnam noted (in the early days of the Internet), “Social capital may turn out to be a prerequisite for, rather than a consequence of, effective computer-mediated communication.”
In other words, social capital sustains you; social media cannot. This is evident today, as we see friends and even celebrities take breaks from their draining social media lives to restore their real lives.
Building community will also help to bridge our political divide. The good news is that face-to-face interaction with our neighbors helps us see past each others’ yard signs. We learn to see each other as people, not political positions.
Indeed, community reins in the worst of our impulses — the impulses on display daily in social media. As Putnam points out, “People divorced from community, occupation and association are first and foremost among the supporters of extremism.”
You’ll note I haven’t said a word about working hard or being yourself or finding your own path. Those things are an outcome of social capital, not a source of it. When you find your people — your circle, your family, your faith community — you’ll find yourself working harder, and with greater satisfaction, on their behalf.
COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders have undermined community, but not our need for it. When we’re able, we must rebuild those connections. They are how we enrich our lives.