“Real Time” Relationships

Posted by Joan Rachlin, Executive DirectorI spent almost eight hours last week in an airless room on the banks of the Potomac with the Planning Committee charged with developing the program for our March 30-31, 2009 Animal Care and Use Conference. This was the first time that a PRIM&R program has been planned “in person,” as opposed to by phone and/or e-mail, and the experiment was a huge success! Those who eventually attend the March meeting will have to be the judge of whether or not they like the Planning Committee’s handiwork, but I can tell you that, at least from a process point of view, it was wonderful sitting around a table with 10 incredibly smart, dedicated, warm, funny, and hard-working individuals and watching them create “something from nothing.”

This got me thinking about what has been lost and what has been gained since telecommunications overtook so much of our work lives. Yes, it’s true that e-mail, listservs, conference calls, and faxes are all very efficient — magical, really — ways to communicate, but what is lost when you don’t sit with someone, look into their eyes, listen to their words as you look, and then have the kind of exchange that builds relationships as well as, in this case, conference agendas?

You’re probably thinking right about now that I’m hopelessly old-fashioned, nostalgic, and/or “Luddite-like,” and you would be at least partially correct. I am all that, but I am also a shameless believer in learning from others, building relationships with others, being inspired by others, and, in general, in the wisdom of groups. While it’s no doubt possible to harness that wisdom via the internet and/or phone lines, nothing compares to getting a group of folks with diverse interests, skills, and experiences around a table and then respectfully listening to that multiplicity of voices.

A lot can happen in the more free-wheeling, open, trusting, atmosphere of a “live” gathering, and so the vets, IACUC administrators, “feds,” and HSUS, AAALAC, International and AALAS colleagues at one point found themselves talking about the search for common ground among those who support the use of animals in research and teaching, and those who do not. Common ground finding is nigh unto impossible when done from afar, because reducing or eliminating the gulfs that divide opposing factions requires “face time,” or that other, less visually acceptable, cliché, “skin in the game.”

But when two groups—even two previously warring groups—sit together and slowly, slowly build trust, anything is possible. One of my favorite examples is the work of the Public Conversations Project whose inspiring work includes getting Israelis and Palestinians, loggers and environmentalists, and anti- and pro-choice activists (among others) to sit down together.

As with our President Elect’s pledge to engage in greater diplomacy, some work simply cannot be done remotely. Even that which can, though, is so much more rewarding, productive, and worthwhile when done in community, and so I felt very, very grateful to sit in a room with Andrew, Beth, Betty, Chris, Cindy, Harry, Marky, Mariellen, MJ, Nelson, Nicole, and Taylor while developing the March program. How else would I have had the chance to share stories about caring for aging parents, share the agonies and ecstasies of raising our children, get advice on what to feed my dog, hear about a blissful studio apartment on the beach in Maui where one member of our group goes for annual R&R, learn about another’s plans to head for North Carolina when he retires, and still another’s waterfront Shangri-La in Maine.

Sure you can plan a program, help an investigator, mentor a colleague, or catch up with an old friend on the phone and via e-mail, but I, for one, want to work harder to make time for those I care about—real time! It’s hard to build relationships “electronically,” although I’m sure that the internet dating world is full of stories to the contrary. And, as relationships are waaaaaaaaaaaay up there on the “what makes life worth living” scale, they are well worth the investment of time—despite the fact that time seems to be the most limited commodity in today’s society. In fact, Friday’s Boston Globe says that we can feel happy “just because” those around us are happy. Wow! Who knew!?!?

I, therefore, want to work toward “real-time” relationships whenever possible. Speaking of which, remember that “airless room” to which I referred in this posting’s opening paragraph? Well, thanks to those gathered around that table, I got so much of the most wonderful kind of oxygen imaginable, and an infusion of happiness and gratitude as well. All that will last me a good, long time, and so sit down with someone and breathe in that wonderful air of connection.