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“How was break?” “Good.”

| Friday, April 10, 2015

As I boarded the plane on my way back to campus this weekend, I couldn’t help but notice the shamrock Notre Dame tie that the suited man sitting across the aisle from me was wearing. As I found my seat, I considered whether or not to engage him in conversation. Perhaps he was an alum, maybe a fan or even one of the many that seem to sport ND apparel for no particular reason. My first instinct, this being a two-hour, early morning flight, was of course to say nothing. But as I settled into my seat and opened my book, I could tell that he was glancing over at my Dillon Hall t-shirt, and, figuring that at most we would engage in some casual banter about last week’s basketball games, I decided to go for it. “Did you go to Notre Dame?” I asked. “Class of 2010, losingest class in Notre Dame football history,” he responded with a smirk. We spent about 15 minutes talking, catching up on dorms, the basketball team, campus construction and the current state of Feve. Just before the end of our conversation, he offered one piece of advice: “In these last few weeks, talk to everyone around you. My biggest regret is that I took for granted that I would always be surrounded by such talented, interesting and passionate people as I was during my time at Notre Dame.”

As I returned back to my reading, I couldn’t shake my new friend’s words. I began to reflect back on the past few days before break and then the previous few weeks, and I struggled to think of many meaningful conversations in which I had engaged. Sure, there had been plenty of acquaintances in passing, debates with my roommates, the parade of five-minute conversations at Finni’s that all seem to blur together and an endless string of questions about how spring break had been and plans for next year. When I returned to campus, I began to ask my friends, particularly those that seemed to be most engaged, if they had ever stopped to reflect on the meaning of their daily conversations. I heard from one that he believes students to be “generally indifferent about one another beyond their close friends.” Closer attention to detail revealed that students rarely engage in anything beyond shallow conversations with their classmates in the majority of my classes. I don’t believe that this indifference is intentional. On the contrary, I have had the opportunity to get to know so many incredibly interesting and genuinely engaging individuals during my four years here. Nevertheless, I believe that there is a true social problem here at Notre Dame. We are surrounded by some of the most interesting people that we may ever know, but we are too wrapped up in our own lives to make an effort to get to know them.

The costs of our neglect of those around us are twofold. First, there are the direct personal costs: the lost opportunities for friendship, the unexplored common ground and the failure to move beyond our comfort zones. After I began to ponder this problem, I became aware of just how many times a day I pull out my phone to pass spare moments in time: in the dining hall, between classes, at the gym, seemingly everywhere. Each of these times that we fail to meaningfully engage those around us, we lose out on a potential connection. Perhaps you’re OK with that. Maybe you have your friends, and that’s all you need. As a relatively introverted person, I have certainly felt that sense of complacency before. But there is a deeper, more indirect cost to our perpetuated culture of solitary busyness, a social cost that exceeds the sum of the individual private costs. As a result of our indifference, the vulnerable in our community go unnoticed. A passing glance at Yik Yak reveals that there are many people here struggling to fit in, feeling lost or isolated. Even if as individuals we deem our own personal costs incurred from the lack of meaningful discourse on campus to be insignificant, we must acknowledge and take responsibility for these social costs.

My suggestion is not that there is not currently any meaning in our daily lives, nor that we must completely reorient our priorities. Nevertheless, there is clearly much that can be done to cultivate more meaningful conversation and relationship building in the midst of the hectic, overcommitted lives we live. Schools across the country, including Harvard, Princeton, Duke and Virginia, have begun participating in the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network, an initiative that organizes students into groups that meet regularly to build relationships and develop strategies to improve student relations. Perhaps that is something that Notre Dame can explore in the future. In the meantime, I have a few simple suggestions.

First, make a purposeful effort to be mindful of those around you and the many opportunities you have to engage them. Second, resist the temptation to withdraw into the safety and security of your phone and your closest friends. And finally, feel free to reach out to me directly at [email protected] with any questions or suggestions. I have been assembling a list of individuals who are interested in forming an informal network of students to facilitate conversation on campus. My initial goal is quite simple. I thought it might be helpful to have a Google Doc with some limited information like interests and availability to get us started. I’m not quite sure where it will go, but I hope that it is a step in the right direction. If you are interested in discussing relationship building on campus or anything else that is on your mind, we would love to hear from you.


Brendan O’Brien



April 9

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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