I have to watch myself these days. I allow myself to become melancholy. And when I get this way I usually go back somewhere and reconnect to a different time – a safe harbor in my past. I reread favorite books – usually Salinger’s. I watch YouTube videos from old movies or events – like Ali-Frazier fights or the 1968 World Series (Bob Gibson vs Denny McClain).

Tonight I watched clips from “Good Will Hunting” – lots of them. I even emailed links to my kids of one of Robin Williams’ more poignant parts (Google “Good Will Hunting Your Move Chief”). He was so good that one has to wonder if he was really acting in that scene.

It’s never a good idea when I am feeling blue to reconnect with Robin Williams – takes me deep down that preverbal rabbit hole. And I know better. But I sure do miss him; It’s like the lights in my house flickered that night and then permanently dimmed a few lumens with his passing.

It also doesn’t help that lately I have been on a tear reading about one of my favorite topics — how disconnected we are today and how much havoc this separation is causing in so many lives — and our modern world in general.

Over and over, my reading keeps telling me that it is active, meaningful engagement with other people that sustains us and provides the only effective barrier we have against debilitating loneliness and its toxic relative, depression. We are hardwired to be social animals — hardwired to be part of a tribe, because that has been our evolutionary response to survival and safety — and the protection of the gene-pool into the future.

Loneliness and depression to a high degree are emotional responses to separation, which, in turn, is directly associated with physiological degradation — heart disease, stroke, higher blood pressure and ultimately shorter lifespans.

When our core needs are not being met, very little else can function successfully. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization are only achieved when we have ongoing meaningful engagement within a group. The problem is that “life” today — time-starved, fragmented, stress-filled, Internet-driven, social media-centric — is increasingly isolating us instead of connecting us. Without personally changing something, this downward spiral only accelerates and becomes more toxic.

So watching old film clips or rereading favorite novels is probably not the best way to reconnect one to his or her tribe or engage in something meaningful. Neither is self-medication, extreme hobbies, addictions of any kind, or even faith alone.

My 3-year-old granddaughter Phoebe patiently waited as I placed her 1-year-old brother Leo into the swing at Wacky World, a wonderful playground in Alpharetta. Beside us a grandmother pushed her two grandchildren on the swings. Her kids were maybe 3 and 5 and able to swing themselves. Leo struggles, and Phoebe becomes more and more impatient as she waits to swing. The grandmother asks if I need help with Phoebe. I say “yes,” and she puts Phoebe on the swing and begins to push her while I push Leo.

Side by side, we don’t say much to each other. I do find out she is from California and is visiting grandchildren who live in Alpharetta. She also has grown children and more grandchildren living in Southern California. She is a widow. She seems tired or a bit weary, but then she shares with me how much she is enjoying visiting with her grandchildren, and I can see that and hear it in her voice.

She asks me how I feel about all this development in Alpharetta, and I respond that I see a glass half full and all the opportunity that becomes available with growth. She wishes that the little town she knew from the early ‘90s somehow had survived. I think to myself that it’s not so much what gets built but what is done with what is built — and that the physical buildings and roads are not who Alpharetta is; the people are — and their acts.

I ask her if she knows the history of the playground. She does not, and I tell her that a couple hundred volunteers built the entire playground in only a few days. She gives me a skeptical glance and a resolute sort of grimace.

“Seriously” I respond, “I was there.” In fact, I tell her, a long time ago I used to take Leo and Phoebe’s father Hans to this playground.

We were the only people at the park that afternoon. The temperature was dropping fast, but I knew there wasn’t any place she would rather be at that moment than with her babies on that cold playground.

I had made it a point to leave the office early that day to pick up my grandbabies. I left so much unfinished in my cubicle. I was already behind on my to-do list partly because when my son Hans had asked me if I had time to be interviewed for his podcast yesterday afternoon, I said “yes.” Then, I spent the next hour and a half being subtly led through the process responding to his well thought out prompts and comments.

Early the next day, he texted me a link to the finished edited podcast, which I know, had taken probably four hours to complete.

Mid morning before I picked up Phoebe and Leo, I had met with Eden Purdy, the volunteer coordinator at North Fulton Community Charities. Reaching out to NFCC had been on my bucket list for years.

We talked about some of their education outreaches and where my background and skillset might fit in. She introduced me to Marcella Reyes, who volunteers at NFCC and works with the Hispanic community in North Fulton and Atlanta. I make a note that Marcella will make a great story. Together Marcella, Eden, and I start working on Eden’s idea of putting a seminar together for early spring that offers help and advice to the Hispanic community in the area — something NFCC already offers to English-speaking clients. Plus, I will get to work one-on-one and practice / relearn my Spanish.

My babies were getting cold, so we pack up and leave Wacky World. On the way out, I notice a plaque on the side of one of the playground fixtures that I don’t recall seeing before. I stop and read it.

“This playground was constructed in 6 days by 2,648 volunteers.” I smiled, and all of a sudden I didn't feel the cold wind that was sweeping across the playground.

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(1) comment

GrannyG

Mr. Appen, thank you for this very insightful Opinion, especially regarding our lives being “internet-driven, social media-centric” which is “increasingly isolating us instead of connecting us”. After recently becoming more selective how and where to spend my time on social media, I realize I am less stressed and less prone to feelings of depression when avoiding contentious sites which only serve to raise my blood pressure.

BTW - as a grandmother who frequently visits Alpharetta, and who spent many happy hours pushing swings @ Wacky World, thank you & the other 2,647 Volunteers for your efforts! Although my grandchildren have outgrown WW, I very much enjoy watching my granddaughter participate in horse shows at Wills Park Equestrian Center.

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