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A culture in need of relations

Matthew Caponigro | Tuesday, February 12, 2013

“The trouble with many of us, and with our culture as a whole is that we don’t take time to ‘relate,’ to connect publicly and formally but meaningfully with others. We sit in meetings and conferences and dinner sessions with scores and hundreds of others . . . But we don’t take the time to meet one to one with others, to hear their interests and dreams and fears, to understand why people do what they do or don’t do what they don’t do,” community organizer Michael Gecan wrote.

I see that cliché “Hey, how’s it going?” – “Great, you?” bit happen by rote here. Social interaction is structured to betray a false sense of intimacy, the “tyranny of intimacy” Gecan calls it, so we don’t have to do the messy work of relating to each other more deeply. I’m not entirely surprised we developed this robotic banter. We don’t usually have time in our schedules to stop long enough to really connect. But it’s not just that we’re busy: We don’t really plug in either. Classes, research and internships – all the typical reasons people come to a University like this – are often just boxes we check off on our way to bigger and better things.

Yes, school is our primary duty during our tenure here at Notre Dame. Yes, classes are integral to our formation as educated individuals ready to be a force for good in the world, and research and internships help us put our learning into action. But they don’t merit the personal sacrifice we often make to do them all at once. Fr. John Jenkins once said: “We’re called to serve each community of which we’re a part, and this call is captured in the motto over the door of the east knave of the Basilica: “God, Country, Notre Dame.” But before we can effectively serve our community, we have to actually build that community.

I know it’s possible here at Notre Dame.

Last Thursday afternoon, I joined 11 of the busiest, most passionate students on campus representing eight different social justice special interest clubs in the Geddes Hall coffee house for dinner, under the informal banner of the “Coalition for Human Dignity.”

For once, we weren’t organizing events or planning fundraisers. We made time to share a meal together that afternoon because, despite our common interest in promoting human dignity, we hardly had any idea who the other was. Someone brought up (and I paraphrase): “How can we promote human dignity if we don’t first recognize the dignity of everyone around us?”

That’s what living in a college community is all about: Intentionally engaging the people around us as actors in their own unfolding stories instead of extras in our own. It’s about seeing the Divine in the other and ourselves through genuine communication, finding new avenues to share our experiences, concerns and hopes – whether it be through sharing a meal like we did last week or making a space to share music and art that reflect our passions or even just sitting down for an earnest conversation over coffee. This kind of relating forces us to be vulnerable more than we’re used to and reflect on ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. But I think everyone I shared that meal with last week would agree when I say it’s downright thrilling.

As we enter into Lent this week, perhaps we can make an intention to talk about real things, things that matter, bother us and drive us to do the things we do, or not do the things we don’t.

Matthew Caponigro is a sophomore studying physics. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.