[I recently finished Life by Keith Richards, lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones. When most people think of the Stones they probably think of Mick Jagger first (no thanks to Keisha and Maroon 5). But Keith has really been the leader, glue, and engine for the band that turns 50 this year. I found a lot of what Keith writes about in Life to speak into my vocation as a Campus Minister. These are my reflections on Keith’s insights.]
“Friendship is a diminishing of distance between people.” from Life p. 312
In my work with students, the two refrains I hear again and again go like this:
- I want more friends
- Community is hard
Who doesn’t want more friends? Certainly a major reason students attend school is to find connection, meet new people, and develop long lasting friendships.
But, community is hard. Most of the students I work with attend Boston University, which presents a unique environment. The school is embedded into Boston, stretching across two miles of the city, while running parallel to the Charles River.
30,000 students swirled into the urban milieu creates an intimidating environment, niceh cultures, and a lack of campus identity. All of which presents a fascinating paradox: tons of people to meet, but there’s an inability to connect.
This is not just a Boston University thing either. I hear the same refrains from other large schools (Northeastern University), smaller schools (MIT), and public/commuter schools (UMASS-Boston). And as I talk with colleagues around the country I am finding students echo this refrain everywhere.
In a sense, this is simply a surface level issue, solved fairly simply: just say hello to someone!
But there is a deeper issue, one that MIT professor Sherry Turkle speaks of in her book, Alone Together. She writes: “Today our machine dream is to be never alone but always in control.”
And therein lies the ultimate difficulty students (and really all of us) have with community. You cannot be friends with someone and control them.
Keith Richards is quite brilliant when he talks about decreasing distance between people. There is a physical distance that must be overcome to make friends. But when we want to control someone another kind of distance is created.
Two people might spend hours and hours together, but that physical proximity is a space where a war for control takes place.
Letting go of control over others is the open door we must walk through to make friends. And so many students I talk with are caught in between, not wanting to let go of control (over people, over their image, over their protection against being hurt), and yet desperately searching and seeking for friendship.
Often times they end up coming to our ministry having burned their way through various relationships.
A large aspect of campus ministry then is creating open, non-controlling environments for friendships to blossom. And it starts with us: are we (campus ministers) controlling, inadvertently creating distance between us and students? Do we model healthy friendships that our students can see? Do we maintain healthy boundaries while providing the space for students to let their guards down and have authentic encounters with others?
One of the best compliments we get about our community is that it feels like family, or a home away from home. When students tell us this, they mean family in the best sense of the word. They mean care, freedom, proximity, closeness, distances erased.
Creating this kind of culture, these sorts of environments is an art, a discipline, a practice. It requires chops. The chops of distance eradication.