I’ve been thinking about connections a little bit lately. I think about the people I’ve met, the people I haven’t, and the people I’ve left behind. And of all of them, I wonder—how connected am I to them?
I try to live my life with as few regrets as possible, and for the most part I think I’m pretty successful. I’ve made mistakes and done stupid things, but most of them have worked out pretty well in the end. But then I wonder if the same is true of the people I know, and more importantly the people I used to know. What if there’s someone out there regretting every day of their life because, unknowingly, I walked out of it?
I should probably start by defining what I mean by ‘connected’. You see, I know a fair number of people, and have met far more than I could ever remember. I may even have met you, and just don’t know it. We go through life and we touch—just a little—hundreds upon hundreds of people. But who are we connected to? On which of those individuals did we make a lasting impression? Is a casual business acquaintance a connection? What about the person you had a crush on in high school but were too nervous to say anything? If you think about someone but they don’t know it, can it have an impact?
For me, being truly connected to someone means that you—or they—had an influence on you that somehow changed the course of your life. That, in one way or another, you would not be the same without them. And the reciprocal is also true, of course—that you somehow influenced their lives.
And when you start to look at it this way, the list of connections becomes far shorter, and those that remain on it become far more precious for it. Ask yourself, if I had never known this person, would my life truly be any different? For some of us, the answers are clear: had I never met my wife, I would not have the wonderful son or the family I have today. But what about that person I once had a deep talk with at work? What about the friend I haven’t called in years? What about the girl who once smiled shyly at me in Starbucks?
A connection should be personal; a sharing of thoughts or feelings, a feeling of deep gratitude—or possibly regret—at having known, or lost, that person.
I am, despite my blog and Facebook page and Twitter account and Goodreads profile, not a terribly social person. In fact, I’m not particularly a fan of social media in general. I was dragged reluctantly into the world of Facebook so that my wife could have someone to be married to. I set up Twitter primarily to connect with people about my books. I started blogging because … well, because I felt like ranting.
But for all of that, I don’t have a great number of ‘friends’ amongst these various social platforms. I have 95 friends on Facebook. I have 38 followers on Twitter. I’m doing better here on WordPress—3,623 followers—but for all of that, I don’t know if I feel particularly connected to many of them. For the longest time, I had a hard and fast rule about Facebook: I would not friend you unless I had met you in person. For the sake of my writing I’ve become a little more lax these days, but nevertheless I know other people who have over 500 friends on Facebook.
The age of internet and social media has certainly gone a long way towards connecting us to more people than ever before, but are these connections more meaningful for it, or less? I have five ‘close’ friends out of my 95 Facebook contacts; just five people whose lives I am generally interested in. Five people who’ve influenced me and my life to a great extent.
Now I might be being a little unfair to some of the others who aren’t in my ‘top 5’; there are certainly people who I am now exclusively in contact with via Facebook that I once was very close with. I try to maintain friendships with these people, but sometimes it’s hard to remember them all, all of the time.
Degrees of Separation
Another aspect of connectedness that comes to my mind sometimes is how close to someone I might be, if only I knew that one other person. After all, although I said earlier that connection should feel personal, feeling connected to someone else doesn’t have to mean that you know each other in person. How many of us, I wonder, feel connected to our favorite artists, musicians or actors, because of their craft? How many of us feel we understand Stephen King’s inner soul because we’ve read everything he’s ever written (answer: me)?
Yet these people—presumably—don’t have a clue who we are, or that we even exist. But what if they could? The [six] degrees of separation theory implies that we are only a few ‘connections’ away from any particular person in the world; that someone I know, knows someone who knows someone, who knows Stephen King. Or Anthony Hopkins. Or whoever your favorite artist is.
Considering this brought me to a secondary thought. If we are only a few people away from anyone else we could desire to meet, that means that, somewhere in the middle, there’s very likely a person who knows of both of us—and just doesn’t know it yet. May Mr. King’s agent knows a publicist who knows my editor, who knows me. That publicist knows both of us—potentially.
And that means that we are in the same position, for a great number of people; every one of us is a missing link for some other two people in the world. And that strikes me as a very powerful thought.
Ultimately, we are all connected to each other, directly or indirectly. I don’t think this in itself is anything terribly profound, but take a moment to consider: what if the person you smiled at on the bus this morning felt a little bit better because of it, and had a friendly chat with their friend that they might not have otherwise had … and that friend was depressed. You may have just inadvertently cheered someone up—or saved a life. We all live on hopes and dreams, and the influence we have on those around us can’t be underestimated.
And of course, sometimes we have—and cause—a terrible, damaging influence, even without meaning it. I’d hope that I’ve gone through life making more friends than enemies, but how many people out there must hate me because of the decisions I’ve made? And what if I never knew?
We all have the opportunity to make a lasting influence on someone in our lives, or someone just outside of our lives—and those are both equally important. Just because we don’t know someone doesn’t mean they matter less; they just matter more to other people. And that’s okay.
So coming from someone who has spent most of his life in darkness and despair, let me be the one to say, lift your head up from time to time, look around you, and smile at the world. Nod as you walk by, wave thank you as you drive, and hold the door on your way in. You can never know what those around you are going through, and you might just be the one to make that desperately-needed change in their lives.
Who has influenced you the most? And who do you think you might have influenced, whether intentionally or not? And if you have, what would you say to that person now if you could?
For me, it would mostly be sorry, and thank you.