Here on my South Pacific Island, though, I’ve found another kind of connectivity. It is far more fundamental to the human species than online access. Here in the islands, it seems, people connect to each other even without the internet. This morning I went for a walk, and every single person I passed greeted me with a smile and “hallo!” I am not used to such connectivity! Unlike urban America, I don’t have to lower my eyes when approaching a passerby, or stare at my cellphone, or protect myself with earbuds. I was free to look at, and to connect with, perfect strangers! I guess I’m experiencing the universal brotherhood of the Islands. Something in the warm ocean breezes thaws human hearts.
I reached the top of the hill, saluted the mighty Pacific, and started back down again. I came upon a little boy playing outside his shanty, and we greeted each other joyfully. He ran ahead of me, shouting to the next house “white man comin’! white man comin’!” The word ran down the line, and people came out of their dwellings to greet a stranger. Connectivity runs like an electric current through the villages.
I thank God (along with the inventors of the world wide web) that I was able to get online here in Port Moresby. I wouldn’t be sending you these musings from the South Pacific without it, or be able to communicate (at least virtually) with my parish in California. We’ve gained a marvelous electronic connectivity to the world, but we must also realize that we’ve lost an essential human connectivity to the guy next door. In fact, this loss of connection with even the people we live with (think of talking to your teenager while she’s texting someone in Australia) is killing us.
Yesterday I read an arresting article about the suicide epidemic. “Death by despair” is now the second leading cause of mortality among adolescents and young adults in the United States. The author, an associate professor of psychiatry at UC Irvine, mentions a young man who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge a few years ago. His last diary entry was “I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.” I hear this loneliness and disconnection all the time in the confessional and spiritual direction. I feel it myself. The pervasive loneliness of our time is quite literally lethal.
Here in Port Moresby, everyone smiled at me on the street this morning. I felt about as far from lonely as I have been in a long time. Don’t let the big companies tell you that “connectivity” requires an internet access point. What makes life worth living is connectivity with people we pass on the street, not “friends” on Facebook. Perhaps many people in Papua New Guinea have Facebook accounts, but they don’t depend on them, at least not yet. They have each other, and they look at each other. I want to take a bit of this connectivity back to San Francisco with me.