“Suzana Sent Me!” – The Importance of Connections

20130307-081457.jpg“Suzana sent me.” I said it with complete confidence. I had a connection. If Suzana sent me, then all would be ok. The owner of the shoe repair store smiled “Ahh Suzana! How is she? We’re buddies, me and that one!”

Suzana is Portuguese and you can’t walk down the street without her knowing someone, establishing a relationship with someone. Suzana knows how to connect. She also has a thousand pairs of shoes. She frequents the shop a lot. Arriving with her name on my lips was like arriving at Buckingham Palace and saying I was Kate Middleton, or arriving at the White House as Sasha Obama.

By virtue of my relationship with Suzana, I was known, I had a relationship, I was connected. It meant all the difference.

I grew up in a culture that placed high value on family and connection. Within minutes of meeting someone, connections were established. I was Ralph and Polly Brown’s daughter, I was connected with the women’s and children’s hospital, I was connected to a host of surrogate aunties and uncles – all part of the larger missionary community. To the outsider this was seemingly small, but huge in a place where relationships were everything. A place where connections were more important than education, and who you knew meant the difference between service, or no service; between relationship or none.

It was connection and belonging that I desperately missed when I moved to my passport country. My passport country seemed to be more about where you worked or went to school than who you knew.

Connections are about belonging. They are about relationship. They are about having an “in”. I realized this again the other day when I confidently used Suzana’s name.

We are made for connections, we are wired to ‘be known’, our DNA spells out the importance of human contact. As a society moves away from acknowledging this need what happens to its soul? Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community speaks extensively to this need, and how disconnected the United states has become from family, friends, and community in general.

He calls these connections ‘Social Capital’ “the fabric of our connections with each other”and looks at these trends over the last 25 years:

People who attend club meetings:
58% drop

Families who eat dinner together:
43% drop

Having friends over:
35% drop

His analysis shows that this decrease in ‘social capital’ “impoverishes our lives”. Those “impoverished lives” include isolation, poorer physical health, changes in mental health, and emotional struggles.

How do we work toward repairing these connections and slowly rebuilding strong communities?

I’m the wrong person to ask this question for I have no answers. I’m tired. I work long work weeks, have family priorities and obligations, and would sooner sit on the couch with a cup of tea and a good book then go try and foster community in my neighborhood. That’s me being completely honest.

But then I think of summer and my Chinese neighbor coming to tell me I can come to her garden and pick mint leaves anytime I want, I think of our Greek neighbors and their little boy who knows my husband by name, and I think about the conversation I had with a cobbler, a familiarity I now enjoy in the middle of a busy city – all because Suzana sent me. And I feel a glimmer of hope. Because this repairing of connections happens in small ways all around me and I’m encouraged to run with it – to be a connector so perhaps one day someone will say “Marilyn sent me!” and the kinship will be immediate.

What about you? Have you struggled to build connections where you live or work? Did you grow up, or live as an adult in a place where connections and community seemed to have a higher value? Would love to hear through the comments.