Sunday, March 29, 2009

Are Facebook Friends "Real" Friends?

Well, I have to say one thing - HuffPost readers rock! This is one spirited group and thanks to everyone who joined in on the lively debate about "Facebook and Kids" last week. Clearly there is a lot of energy, pent up emotion, generational gaps and strong opinions regarding the "tipping point" of Facebook and other social networking sites. I stumbled into a much bigger lion's den than I imagined!

Today I'd like to explore why social networking in general has touched a collective nerve. Do sites like Facebook stand as viable communities, and are the people on your home page "real friends?" Many of you say no. It's the brick and mortar, sit-face-to-face-and-talk that counts. Some expressed feeling leery of all the myriad new drains on time and energy with texting, tweeting, facebooking and so on. They lament the discourtesy of people constantly texting while out to dinner, or using twitter to reply to Facebook to send you an email to ask a simple question. They fear we are losing ourselves.

Yet, this prism has many sides. Plenty out there believe these sites are solid and viable resources for maintaining connections, and the wave of the future. Some of you spoke of how you enjoy the broad networks you can manage easily, as well as nostalgic components of finding old friends and delighting in renewed connections. One of our readers said she joined Facebook, met old elementary school friends she had lost touch with, and was making plans for a reunion in New York City.

"But do you really consider these relative strangers to be your 'friends?"' I asked her.
"Yes," she replied, "because they have a piece of my history that almost none of my existing friends have. It is really feels almost like finding a long lost relative."

So, what gives? When something hits a nerve, clearly there are unresolved emotions, the boundaries of a comfort zone is being tapped, or we are being asked to make a paradigm shift around something we are unsure of. Perhaps we are being asked to broaden our horizons of relationship in general.

Let's look at Wikipedia's definition of Friendship:
Friendship is a term used to denote co-operative and supportive behavior between two or more people. In this sense, the term connotes a relationship which involves mutual knowledge, esteem, and affection and respect along with a degree of rendering service to friends in times of need or crisis. Friends will welcome each other's company and exhibit loyalty towards each other, often to the point of altruism. Their tastes will usually be similar and may converge, and they will share enjoyable activities. They will also engage in mutually helping behavior, such as exchange of advice and the sharing of hardship.

How about the definition of community?

1)Group of people sharing a common understanding who reveal themselves by using the same language, manners, tradition and law.
2) The condition of having certain attitudes and interests in common.

Technically then, it really doesn't matter if you feel comforted by others online or feel nourished at church or connected at a company retreat; we all need varied experiences of friendship and community in our lives. I have written extensively about community and believe there is much to gnosh on here. What's behind the movement is essentially - we are starved for one another. That is why Facebook took off across the generations. We crave opportunities to see a friendly face and know the silly details of each others lives. It fills a void.

The experience of loneliness is a widespread societal wound. I believe, when we get down to the root, what we're craving is not physical or cyber connections, but Meaningful connections. Humans are hardwired to gather together as a means of survival, and loneliness prompts a "desire to affiliate" according to John Cacioppo, author of the book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. I have quoted him before as his research is so powerful.

"You can have all the 'right' friends in terms of social prestige, in-group cachet, or business connections, or a spouse who is rich, brilliant and fabulous looking, but if there is no deep, emotional resonance, then none of these relationships will satisfy the hunger for connection or ease the pain of feeling isolated."

I believe most teens discussed last week deeply crave connection, and the cyber world is a tour de force of potential; with proper 'driving lessons' to guide them. Most of us 'grown ups' have not had time to develop close relationships in our lives. In fact, whenever I teach workshops and poll people as to who feels somewhat lonely in their lives, a majority raise their hands. I talk to people every day who lament they do not have a community in their lives, or a dedicated group of friends they feel they can count on to call when life is falling apart.

Psychologists Wendi Gardner and Marilynn Brewer studied the ways people describe themselves and believe when you answer the question, "Who Am I?" The answer usually relates to the groups in our lives. (ie: I am a mother, a writer, etc.). They created three categories of Self: your physical, social, and collective Selves. Here's a few tips on how to find balance across the physical and cyber world:

1) Ground your 'Physical Self'- stay grounded in what makes you unique in this world and tend to your inner life each day with the essentials of air, earth, fire and water. Find activities that put you in a "flow state."
2) Nurture you Social or Relational Self- Be mindful of the relationships you have through work, spouse, friends, neighbors and offer gratitude when you can. Knock on a door out of the blue and surprise someone!
3) Develop our "Collective Self"- this is the part of you that expands to others via social networking sites, larger societies or associations and other broader social identities that are less a part of your day-to-day experience, yet can expand who you are.

Maybe someday this will all blow over when we learn how to become telepathic. Then we can ditch all these terminals, beeping phones and complex devices and just return to the Oneness. We will simply know and trust that we are not alone and won't have to prove it over and over again.

As always, I love to hear your comments and thoughts. Feel free to leave a comment below or if you have a longer story to tell, you can email me directly at: If you would like to receive notices of my columns, simply click on the "Become a Fan". See you next Sunday!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Facebook & Kids - Are Their Brains Ready for Social Networking?

As a mother, I have recently discovered Facebook. My kids knew about it long ago and I poo pooed it as another mindless waste of time. Finally, I joined so I could track my kid's antics like a sneaky James Bond spy. Trouble is - I somehow got hooked myself. Suddenly, friends from far and wide started popping up. People from the dim recesses of my childhood resurfaced. Facebook is like a really good piece of chocolate or a bag of those great salt and vinegar potato chips.

However, the way I use Facebook is a bit different than they way my kid's do, and plenty of kids are getting addicted beyond reason, using it for brutal cyber bullying or daring to say the types of things they would never dream of in person. Kid's depression rates are sky high, average onset at age 14, and there have been many reports of teen suicide from internet related bullying.

For over 25 million youth, Facebook is replacing email as "the" way to communicate, and parents are often left in the dust and wondering is it safe? What age can kids safely have a Facebook page? Should they insist to be their "Friend" and monitor their endless chatter?

Jill is a mother of three children ages 10-14, who are fully into the digital generation. All have iPods, computers, Wii games, cell phones, and are addicted to Facebook. They are like most middle school aged kids in America today who have their hands on toys most adults only recently acquired themselves.

One day, a call came from the principal informing Jill and her husband, their middle daughter was being given in-school suspension for creating a Facebook group used to make fun of another student. Called something like, "Eric is a Hairy Beast," the group quickly filled with loads of kids making fun of a quiet Armenian boy, uploading cell phone pictures of him and becoming more brazen by the day.

These kids are "A" students, and far from brats; but most are not cognitively developed enough to recognize their behavior is hurtful to others. According to Lisa Ott, the Youth Empowerment Coordinator at the Women and Family Life Center, this is on target with research in adolescent brain development.
Kids get into trouble with sites like Facebook and MySpace because they are too self-centered in their overall development to understand the impact of what they are doing, she said. Middle school age children are the most susceptible to cyber bullying, and high school students most likely to use poor judgment in giving out information.

Dr. Jay Giedd is the chief of brain imaging in the child psychiatry branch at the National Institute of Mental Health, and an expert in adolescent brain development. His research shows the brain is not fully developed at age 12 as was believed, but reaches full maturity in our mid-twenties. Adolescence is a time of profound brain development, surpassing that of toddlers. The area of the pre-frontal cortex develops last, which is in charge of higher reasoning and understanding consequences. The emotional centers of the brain that control happiness, fear, anger and sadness often over-compensate, and can be 50% stronger during adolescence.

I set about interviewing scores of parents with children from elementary to high school, asking their opinions about Facebook and kids. While most felt it was a relatively safe place for kids to connect to each other, many expressed concern over the obsessive nature of these sites. Designed to be "sticky;" a site is deemed successful the longer it entices you to stay on, yet these hours are replacing other activities critical for healthy development.

A child's brain reaches its full size at age six and the gray matter is actually the thickest around age 12. Remember how the world was full of possibilities at that age? Because it truly is. After this stage, the brain begins to prune back gray matter and the phrase "use it or lose it" becomes key as certain brain cells die forever. The skills your child learns during adolescence; like sports, dancing, music or academics become hard wired. Other skills that are not being used will fall away.

What's a parent to do?
1) Be Involved - Kids will always be ahead of us in technology, so encourage them to show you how to set up a social networking page. This encourages them to share what they know and gives you access to what they are doing.
2) Be a Parent, not a Pal - Insist on knowing user names and passwords of all their social networking accounts. Explain to them it is not to be used to spy, but to have in case they were in some sort of danger.
3) Create a Balance- We want our kids to develop their own identity and become independent. Learn to trust them and allow opportunities for them to explore when it is age appropriate and set clear limits for internet use.

Most kid's today don't have a local bowling alley or soda shop to hang out, like the baby boomer generations had. They also aren't allowed to play outside until the street lights come on as recent generations enjoyed. Hours of skipping rope, climbing trees and building forts is replaced with the tap tapping of tiny keyboards. The cyber playground has replaced the physical one, for better or worse. It is our job as parents to make sure their developing brains know how to do more than move a mouse around a keyboard and encourage more face to face social time.

Peggy Orenstein, author of Growing Up Daisy recently wrote about "Growing Up on Facebook" in the New York Times. She notes most kids now going to college have been 'facebooking' since middle school, and wonders how our youth will be able to take the important steps of "reinventing themselves" with "450 friends watching, all tweeting to affirm ad nauseam your present self?"

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Who Are Your Rocks? The Recssion Sucks, Who Ya Gonna Call?

This is the final column in a three part series exploring the power of community as a much needed and oft forgotten tool for stress, coping and perhaps even flourishing in life. Two weeks ago, I outlined the seven areas in our lives we can build a community, (here), last week we explored how to "eat, pray love" your way to closer connections (here). For this week, I have been asking our readers and contributing writers to share stories of "who are your rocks?" How have you created community in a powerful way?

Many of us have been far too busy earning and spending money to worry about making friends or building a regular social network. Trouble is, when times are tough, a solid community of people in your life can be key to helping you make connections with others to find a new job, start a new business or ride the bumps of a stressed out marriage. The recession sucks. Who ya gonna call?

I have heard some amazing stories of how we experience community in our lives, and thank you to everyone who replied. Kim Zoller wrote:
I co-owned a corporate training business for about a dozen years and our work focused on creating more supportive, meaningful and committed communities within the workplace. I found that most people were hungry for these deeper and more nourishing relationships.

Marvin Thomas saw this need dramatically in his private practice as a psychotherapist, when he realized many of the people sitting in his chair would not need to be there if they were "embedded in a strong, supportive group of people." As a young father and professional, he realized this was missing in his own life as well. In his book, "Personal Village- how to have people in your life by choice, not chance" he describes how revitalizing community is urgent business.

While this topic has been of interest to me for several years, it seems even more pertinent now. We are all freaked out. We don't have the money for 'retail therapy', or even traditional therapy for that matter. We don't really want to talk about mindless things. We need to talk about what matters, and 'turn to one another' to build a life raft that will carry us beyond today and beyond this mess. Something we can count on.

Doris Wurzbach won the prize for the 'best rocks' story. Doris is 86 years old and an austere lovely woman from Canada, who wanted to share with me the story about her special community. She is part of a group fondly called the "Dopey Dozen." In 1939 when she was 16 years old, Doris and friends named their 'official' club. They met as children through sitting in the same row, as their names fell in alphabetical order. Who knew random chance would become a connection that would last until their dying days.

Here is a shot of the Dopey Dozen in 1940, dressed in their finest for a special dance.

They grew apart after graduation and lost touch. No email then, no Facebook. A war was at hand, and life was consuming. Years fly by, and the Dopey Dozen aged into their mid-fifties; some married, some widowed and most reported feeling lonely.

Here's the fun part. The Dopey Dozen by chance all showed up to their 35th high school reunion. Everyone had now raised their kids, and rediscovered an intense desire to share their life stories, reconnect and rebuild.

They did.

For the next 30 years straight, the Dopey Dozen met every single year. The girls had a blast, the husbands became friends, they went on cruises, and took care of each other when one got sick or died.

Here's the Dopey Dozen fifty years later in 1990. They kept going until 2005. Another 15 years AFTER this shot was taken.


How many of you are out there in your 50's or older and think it is too late to create a life long connection with other people? It's never too late to start. Having real live human beings who can become rocks of support in your life is worth every ounce of effort.

Dr. Cara Barker, a popular columnist here at Huff Po (bio here) moved to a new town and wondered how she could build a community there.
It seems there was a longing for community where all were welcome, and one which made a sacred space for celebrating what we've all been given,
she described. So, how did she do it?
In the beginning, I took out an ad in the Boulder paper, and welcomed people to Sunday Gatherings. The first S.G. had about 22 people come.
Starting with a few acquaintances, it eventually grew to over 200 people! Little did she know when she started it would grow to the size it did. What a service, both for Cara, and for the community at large.

Popular Huff Post blogger Ann Naylor (bio here) wrote:
I have enjoyed several communities: for a while I worked in the theatre in London - it was very much of a family with its own language and understanding. My church also offers a wonderful community of understanding and support. What I love about communities is they are places in which I feel safe to just be myself and to feel accepted and acknowledged.

Our own Editor-at-Large of the Living Section, Russell Bishop, (Bio Here) contemplated who makes up his 'rocks' of community:
my spiritual family, a collection of people who would never join anything, all independent types, who have in common a commitment to returning Home to our spiritual source. We walk the path together, facing Spirit, sometimes shining a bit of light on the path for each other, sometimes taking apparent detours, all the while remaining committed to expanding awareness and deepening our ability to be loving and to extend our loving to all whom we touch.

There has been a YouTube clip that has run circles over the internet, and it is still appropriate. Kelly Corrigan wrote an essay tribute to her mother and her circle of community. Instead of a "Dopey Dozen" they were called the "pigeons." If you are one of the few left who hasn't seen it; check it out as a powerful reminder of long lasting bonds to the bitter end. Even though this clip is about women, the bonds are universal.

Next week, I will begin to shift focus to our youth and some of the concerns of building cyber space communities. I will be specifically looking at the meteoric rise of Facebook and the challenges it raises for parents. Any comments? Feel free to leave them below or email me directly at

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Eat, Pray, Love Your Way to Closer Relationships

Last week, we baked a cake together. The cake was called Community and the ingredients were all the layers of relationships we have in our lives: ourselves, partners, family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and even the world itself. To read last week's post, click Here..

Now that we have this lovely cake, heated by the fires of the Great Mystery, how about we slice it up and share it? How do we share ourselves in community, and how do we build one that isn't fake, competitive or surface level?

I think Elizabeth Gilbert was onto something with her memoir, "Eat, Pray, Love." Hers was indeed a path of self-discovery on how to truly create a sense of inner peace and community within herself. First she ate her way through Italy, then she prayed her way through India and finally she found love in Bali.

Turns out this eating and praying and loving thing could work in a broader context too. Over the years of leading and participating in various groups, I have found there are a few tried and true tricks that can turn an everyday book club, board meeting, cocktail party or girl's night out into something moving, insightful and deeply nourishing. It's time to move beyond empty-headed networking chatter or fast food friendships.

Here is my "Top 5 List" of how to turn any gathering into something memorable:

1. Eat-
Food, food - glorious food! Let's start here. Sharing delicious, decadent and healthy food together is relaxing, helps stimulate conversation and elevates our mood. Doesn't matter if it is at work, at play or for fun, everything rolls easier with a tasty morsel or two. And don't be stingy- always have more than enough! Bring lots of chocolate, fruit, nuts and lovely sparkling waters. Sit on the floor and spread the food out in the middle as a glorious centerpiece. It is a great beginning.

2. Pray-
Prayer can mean so many things to different people. The idea is to get out of everyday reality for a moment or two and into something luminous. Group prayer can be incredibly powerful. However, if prayer is not your thing, creating rituals is a fantastic way to bring your group closer together. Simply put, a ritual is anything special you repeat over and over again. This could be lighting candles at the table, it can mean holding hands and meditating to get centered, it could mean dancing, as Dr. Cara Barker beautifully shared in her most recent post . As corny as it sounds, absolutely nothing moves people farther and faster than sharing some sort of ritual experience together. Once you get the hang of it, many of us hunger for more.

3. Love-
The Beatles said it "Love is all you need." But, if that is a stretch in your group, how about starting with a little Appreciation and Gratitude? How often have you shared a special experience or moment with someone, and never bothered to let them know how much it meant to you? I love to end our family dinners with something we all are grateful for- it makes our meal so much more meaningful. Ending any sort of gathering that allows time to share something that you appreciate lifts everyone into a more connected and grateful space.

4. Take a Risk-
I am not saying all of this is easy! If you want the fruit at the end of the vine of an enriched community life, you have to stretch out your hand. Don't be afraid to share that your life is not so rosy. People respond to the shadows of life with a deep empathy impossible to reach when the sun is shining. Inevitably, being brave allows others to do the same. This risk can apply to talking to your teenagers, to your co-workers or to the friends you have always kept at arm's length. They are waiting for you and the time is now.

5. Build a Routine-
Call or email a group of people you really enjoy, and see if they are all willing to get together once a month. This is usually manageable for most people. It allows you to begin to develop closer relationships without interfering with the daily grind, and becomes something everyone can look forward to. Even though you only gather once a month, the anticipation, and the reflections afterward, give a lot of mileage.

In times like these, we can help keep each other afloat- if we are willing to try. Our collective fear increases the need to huddle together, and in a way that acknowledges the Truth of our nature.

I am a part of a wonderful group of women, called "Mother Madness." This group of 20 have been meeting monthly for over 5 years and represent a variety of ages, stages, professions, political affiliations and philosophies. We live in Yankee New England and this kind of gathering is not common.

Like pilgrims we come once a month. We have pillows arranged in a circle, loads of treats piled in the center, candles and music. We all breathe deeply and welcome the faces. As we settle down, we close our eyes, hold hands and take a moment to let the world go. We then "smudge" each other with this great smelling sage, that smells slightly of pot, and somehow it relaxes us even more.

We pass a special "talking stick" that means whoever has that thing is the ONLY one who can talk, and she can say whatever she wants, for as long as she wants. One by one we talk, share, cry, listen, laugh and sigh. That's it. Marvelous medicine I highly recommend. We eat, we pray, we love, we take risks and we have a lovely routine. They are my rocks. We are each others rocks. I don't know what I would do without them or this container of community.

Who are your rocks? How do you build a special connection and community? I'd like to hear! Feel free to leave a comment in the box below or email me directly at:
Next week I will dedicate the entire article to sharing our "back stories" of who keeps us afloat and how we nurture each other in special ways. Look for several of our regular Huff Po featured writers to share as well!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Are You Surrounded With Authentic Communities? Explore 7 Possibilities

Welcome. I am so glad you joined us. Please, settle in and get cozy.
I want to talk about 'community,' something the Living Section is becoming very active in creating. Our writers are aligning, and we are delighted to be reaching out to so many of you. What does community mean? Is it an old fashioned barn raising from days gone by, or a church social, or town festival? Where does community start, and why is it important in the first place? Nowadays, community means a Facebook group or "Twittering" thither and yon.

Community is all those things, and so much more.
Countless studies have shown, unequivocally, without others in our lives, we are lost. According to John Cacioppo in his new book Loneliness- Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, loneliness is the most detrimental emotion we can experience and social isolation can have an impact on our health comparable to high blood pressure or smoking. In tribal eras, the greatest punishment one could receive is banishment. Even today criminals are put alone in a jail cell - and the ultimate punishment: solitary confinement.

So, we need each other. But how do we make that happen? People are busy. People are concerned with their own lives. No one has time. No one cares. Where has that gotten us?
Our prosperity has driven us apart. We live in single dwellings and we don't physically depend on one another for survival. But our spirits do. We need to feel there are people out there who care about us, who we can turn to in tough times like now.

How do we start? Let's examine all the spheres of people in your life that have the potential to become a rich and authentic community, and for fun, look at them as seven ingredients needed to make a magnificent "Cake of Community Life."

1. Community With Yourself
The first ingredient is You. Think of you as the cake pan. Do you have a sense of community with yourself? Do you love and accept yourself; 'warts and all?' Do you create time and space to nurture yourself, be it exercising, enjoying a quiet cup of tea or curling up with a book? If not, this is the first place to begin. Befriend yourself. Take yourself in. You have a unique purpose on Earth and we are waiting for you!

2. Community with Your Partner
The second ingredient is your committed partner. Some of us have one, some of us don't. If you do have a lifelong partner; is there a sense of community between the pair of you? Do you and your beloved make time to acknowledge and nurture one another? Do you have peace and comfort in your foundation? Think of our partners as the flour in the cake. Many forget to create special time together in the frantic pace of life. Whether it is a date at the movies, twilight stroll or vacation getaway, continuing to reinforce community with our love is vital.

3. Community With Family
Wherever you are on the wheel of family- young professional with parents and siblings, married couple with kids, empty nesters with adult children, or elders enjoying the fruits of grandchildren; family is our most common community. For some, it is a supportive one, and for others a challenge. Some people create their own family. Nurturing your sense of community within the family has become more and more critical. Today, TV's and computers are in every room, and a many families spends their evenings plugged into some other world than the one going on right under their nose. I think of family as the eggs in our cake batter.

4. Community of Friends:
Our friends are our rocks. In a later article, I will dedicate a full piece to exploring who are the rocks in your life. Our friends become the constant place to fill daily chatter, share entertainment, recreation, and be a shoulder to cry on when we need it. Do you consider your friends to be a community? Many of us have what I call, "fast food" friendships that are surface level and not very satisfying. What we crave are those down and deep kinds of friends that love us without condition and make life worth living. Check out Gretchen Rubin's post from last week on "7 Tips to Make New Friends ." Friends make life so sweet they are the sugar in our mixture.

5. Community with Neighbors:
Some of us are blessed to have an active neighborhood that enjoy regular parties, pitch in with watching kids, and pick up each other's mail. Others live in crowded suburban neighborhoods or big urban apartments for decades, and don't know a soul. I consider neighbors a hybrid of family and friends because you are "stuck" with the neighbors you have, much like family. With luck, and some effort, many of them can become loyal friends, even if you have little in common and may not have chosen them. Neighbors are the oil.

6. Community with Co-workers:
For many of us, we spend more time each day with our co-workers than we do with our partners, family and friends combined. Some people are blessed to love their job and love the people they work with. Others may not be so lucky. It is too bad that so many work environments have still not embraced the power of nurturing the humanity of their workers, and create a community style office environment. Those visionaries who have; like Google, The Body Shop and many direct sales companies, enjoy a level of productivity unparalleled. What a joy to feel that your co-workers are your community and everyone supports one another in work life, and in home life. Co-workers are the salt and baking soda.

7. Community with the World Around You
What outer tribes are you a part of? Maybe you are active with your college alumni, involved in local charities, your children's school, or sports teams. All of these are larger communities of which we take part. As a modern twist, many of us feel a tremendous sense of connection and community through virtual social networks. Facebook alone has brought more old friends together than ever imagined possible. All of these larger circles are like the icing on the cake.

Close your eyes and imagine all these aspects of community. Surround yourself with the layers and layers of people who penetrate and influence your life; all the people of whom you have the opportunity to touch each day. We need each other.

There is one final component of experiencing authentic community that is the grandest of all. It is the heat that bakes our cake. It is the alchemy that transforms a bowl full of goop into a warm, moist, delicious wonder. The hot oven is the Great Mystery that surrounds us all. Call it God, Goddess, Buddha, Mother Earth, Great Spirit, Yahweh, the Force or as David Eagleman says in his book, SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives: "Possibilian".

This heat is the 'something deep inside' that stirs us to levels of awe, joy, inspiration, epiphany and steadfast knowing that We Are All One. In those moments, there is no need for 'building' a community. We are already a tribe, already connected, already whole.

How is your cake looking these days? A little lumpy? Too many eggs and not enough frosting? Searching for the heat? Do you have a rich community life, and if so, how did you create it? We would love to hear your comments and I will feature some of them next Sunday, my new regular day on Huff Po, where I will describe how to make a gathering more satisfying. Please leave a comment below, it is easy to do and if you want to be informed of next week's post, click on the RFF feed button.