Networking helps bridge gaps that divide us

For years, I followed my young clients’ forays into Facebook and MySpace with trepidation. As several showed me their pages, I saw raucous party pictures that would make their parents eyes curdle. I cautioned them that their privacy was at stake, gently cajoling and encouraging them not to reveal too much. “Think about your future,” and “What you reveal may come back to haunt you.” was my Mantra.

Then, as is so often the case with those who protest too much, my resolve slowly faded. The occasion was innocuous enough. I received a friend request from a Yoga teacher who wanted to keep the class up-to-date on any scheduling changes. Responding to her, I succumbed and joined the Facebook networking community. I filled out the necessary information and officially became a member of Facebook — not quite understanding all that that it entailed.

For much of the next year there was little activity on my page, and I almost forgot about joining. Then, as if out of nowhere, there came a barrage of Friend requests. It was a virtual mixed cocktail into my history; requests came from contemporaries and current clients still in high school. Then, as if by some silent signal, boomers eager to network seemed to spontaneously arise from around the globe. Facebook had left its adolescent framework once and forever.

I soon became an advocate, denying my earlier protestations that neglected to see how much fun it would be to stay in touch with people from the past, even in the brevity of a few short pithy updates. I decided not to hang back with those still married to landlines and the almost obsolete handwritten note. Plunging in, I learned to negotiate the site, and found causes I cared about, and actively sought out friends from my past.

Now, several months into what may be described as an active obsession, I have encouraged others (even my curmudgeonly brother) to join Facebook. I have forged a connection with people from decades past, and family members with who contact had slipped away. In my profession as a counselor and professor, my contact with many students and clients is finite. We come together to work on a particular issue, subject or agenda, then hopefully my client is happy with the results, and our contact terminates.

Because we are focused on present goals, this coming and going of people, acceptance of the continual loss is a given in my field. Teachers often lament they just have just begun to feel close to a student when it is time to send him/her off to the next class. Receiving good news of how well someone has fared is gratifying, and when the word is sad, there is a chance to lend a caring hand.

Prior to joining Facebook, I would sometimes wonder about former students or friends and Google them. These Internet searches gave me many smiles and surprises by learning what direction those I once knew in the past have taken. Particularly rewarding is finding how some transcended difficulties in school to build productive lives. Others now have advanced degrees and work in positions making significant contributions to the lives of others. Yet this information, interesting as it is, does not lead to direct contact. That is where Facebook has stepped in.

Contacting people one knows from decades back brings with it memories of a forgotten era. My longest held Facebook Friend is a girl I used to walk to school with in kindergarten. She lived in an apartment not far from my home. When my mother passed away, it was her mother who became a surrogate and introduced me to the heretofore-mysterious world of Wonder Bread, bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches. For a girl whose family had traces of Orthodox Judaism, these American standard-fare nourishments were delicious samples of what relatives would consider heretic eating.

The Facebook experience has been a trip down memory lane, to a different time in place — back to the inception of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s when the fear of the disease spreading through casual contact was rampant. Several young people I was working with had parents who were afflicted with the dread disease. One in particular spent many hours with me. While still in middle school, he would travel to the hospital to see his father who was in isolation. At the time it was thought that AIDS was passed by touch. This young boy had to put on clothing and gloves to shield him from touching his dad. Awakening an online relationship with this now-adult, brought back memories of how far we have come in fighting those misconceptions, and seeing how many advances have been made to find a cure for AIDS.

My brother passed away a decade ago after a valiant struggle and treatment for cancer of the bone marrow leaving behind his wife and two small children. They lived in Western Canada, and I missed many of their milestones growing up. Now as young adults, we have connected through Facebook in a way that would have been unlikely by telephone or letter. They are both such amazing people and my brother would be so proud. My niece has deep commitment toward human rights and, as an undergraduate, traveled the world to volunteer in places such as far off as Uganda; and my nephew, the recipient of a prestigious award for graduate study, has grown into the most handsome and slyly humorous adult. They are members of a generation that fluently texts messages. My questions to them are responded to in ways that did not exist in the past.

Through making contact with long-lost students and friends, social networking sites can make a valuable contribution towards bridging the gaps that divide us. They can give us a renewed sense of history, which has been lost by so many of us constantly moving from place to place.

So, I encourage holdouts to look into Facebook or a similar site, and to not be fearful that your information is getting into the wrong hands. My brother (the curmudgeonly one) now corresponds privately through his Facebook network e-mail with close to 50 friends, and has never written a message others can’t see.

Looking back, I relate my initial resistance to Facebook as similar to getting adjusted to using an ATM card, e-mail, and the Internet itself. Things change so fast and, as in the past, the young are often ahead of the game. But a word of caution, once comfortable with Facebook or another networking site, try not to become addicted. Spending face-to-face time with a friend is still preferable to short scribbled updates. Brief contact is good, but familiarities, such as watching a smile erupt on a face far better.