April 25, 2011


A friend, a former student from my teaching days in Zimbabwe, e-mailed a picture of one of her classmates the other day. It was a boy, now a middle aged man, with whom I had lost touch but liked very much. He had grown up to be farmer but was driven out of his homeland by Robert Mugabe as part of the president’s land distribution program. This former student now farms in South Africa and though his hair has turned grey, I recognized him at once as he sat proudly, holding his new granddaughter. After 47 years, it was wonderful to receive news of him and to learn that he is well and happy. 

As I stared at the picture on my computer, Chains, a short story by the Hungarian writer, Frigyes Karinth came to mind. He was the first to present the now familiar notion that there are six degrees of separation between us and a total stranger. John Guare, the American writer, picked up the idea for his play, “Six Degrees of Separation” which became a film in 1993. Since then various games have been created based on the theory, the most famous involving the actor Kevin Bacon.

(courtesy: BingImages)

I thought it strange, as I stared at the picture before me, that I was now linked with this grandchild whom I would doubtless never meet. Such was the power of electronic messaging. It occurred to me then that six degrees of separation might be an obsolete notion. Today, the degrees might be reduced to 5 or even 3?

Certainly social networks have brought the world closer together and I’m always surprised to discover the few degrees of separation between me and someone I have just “friended.” A woman sent me a “like” message the other day about something I’d written and when I replied, I learned we’d attended rival high schools in our younger days. Another ”stranger” used to be a weaver and it’s possible I purchased one of her pieces years ago. Small world.

Of course, our impulse to reach out to one another predates the electronic age.  It began when the first cave dweller drew the first painting on his wall, leaving his story for others to find. As a former teacher, I’m inclined to be a bit prejudiced where links are concerned. Books crammed with ideas and stories about the human experience are my favorite.