It was a pretty typical Sunday and a typically great day: I got up early so I could go to the gym, take two classes back-to-back, and head home before noon so I could tackle my mountains of unfinished desk work. I do this every week.
Also typical was my walk in and out of the Y. Going in, I chit chat with a young woman trying to manage 3 kids on her own and commiserating with her about multi-tasking and having too many things to hold at one time. That happens to me all the time at Wegman’s when I go in thinking I’m only getting two things and end up at the checkout without a cart balancing 15 items in one arm.
Then I am walking out of the Y after a couple of hours of working out (hard, I might add, egged on by my exercise buddies in the back row), and I end up chatting with a woman who was chagrined to see that it was raining again. She muttered something derogatory under her breath, and I responded. Well, what would you do? I was walking 2 feet from her, and she said it loud enough for me to hear. So, we chat about the weather, and I get to hear all about how her dogs refuse to leave the house, so now mountains of dog hair are accumulating in her home. Silly mutts!
She goes her way, and I go mine. Starbucks, same thing. Friendly chit-chat with the barista.
These people are all complete strangers to me; I don’t know any of them. In fact, so far, we are running about 50/50 with how many of my conversations are with people I’ve never met before.
I talk to strangers often, and I’m usually the one who initiates it because most people are pretty wary of those they don’t know. Apparently, they are afraid that they might catch some horrible microorganism from them, or they’ll get stuck talking to someone who they end up deciding is really weird and hard to get rid of. Or they are so internally focused on their own troubles it doesn’t occur to them to look around and see who’s there. Maybe they feel unworthy of someone else’s attention, or they are just really private people who no one ever gets to know very well. All good! I will be friendly anyway.
Because at the end of all these interactions, we usually both have a smile on our faces, wish each other a nice day, and are lifted. The day seems brighter somehow. How does that happen? Through connection. Through acknowledgment. Through recognizing that we are not alone. We have so much in common with each other, and there is support, friendliness, caring, and connection available to us even when our closest friends are nowhere to be found.
We get validated. The exiting Y woman said, “I hate rain!” I said, “I hear you!”. I don’t really hate rain, but I really did empathize. She said, “but it’s better than snow,” and I said, “Oh, yeah!” Look at all that validation. You immediately feel better about whatever the thing is.
Getting to Know You
Seriously, how much do you need to know someone to care about them or to trust them? How much of the content of their life needs to be revealed before you allow yourself to connect and enjoy their presence? I remember a favorite instructor in my Master’s degree program at Lesley College (a very, very long time ago) telling us newbie counselors that all you have to do to get to know someone and help them feel safe is to be present with them and do the work. She told us that we don’t need a lot of time, we don’t need to chit chat, we don’t need to take long histories or even have a lot of content revealed to us to establish trust with our client. That made sense to me. In fact, that instructor, who I knew nothing about other than her presence in class, was someone I trusted a lot, and in those days, I hardly trusted anyone.
These connections that are so impersonal, in a way, can really make a difference. You don’t even have to do anything for them but smile. Like earlier in Body Pump, a woman was having a hard time seeing the numbers on the weighted bars, so I read them to her, enabling her to pick the one she wanted without taking all day with it. Yes, helpful, but also my acknowledgment of the vision loss that comes with aging for many of us seemed to make a difference to her, too. Lending someone a hand isn’t the whole story, and it probably isn’t the biggest help we can give. What matters more, I think, is the conversation, however brief. The being present, being interested, and simply willing to give someone your full attention. How rare that is for so many of us!
Sure, some of these interactions turn into friendships. My unrelenting availability to talk to others and help them as needed in class has resulted in many friendships at the Y. I don’t see most of these people when I’m not there, but I do count them as friends. We text each other to say we aren’t going to make it, and we share links to products on Amazon. They bad mouth their hubbies and their kids to me. You know, friends.
A Separate World
Am I just a big busybody endlessly seeking opportunities to be helpful or to feel like a saint? No, not at all. I suspect being a saint is very boring. I just enjoy life more this way, and I like to be available and present to what’s around me. Most of all, I like to respond to people in a way that runs counter to what I think is unhealthy in our society. It’s me doing my own little social protest against what I don’t care for about our world, our very separate world, where people hide at home or out in the world behind masks, fences, walls, or closed doors.
What I don’t care about is the isolation. The way we set people apart and at odds with each other. The competitiveness. The disdain and disregard for people who “aren’t like you.” The bullying. The criticism. Mainstream media seems intent on setting us up for endless conflict by focusing on superficial differences and amplifying them into a big moral conflict. So unnecessary, yet so many people are into it. The thing is, we don’t have to be. We can decline. And I do.
Healing the World
I believe that there are far-reaching consequences to this simple approach to being in the world. We demystify strangers, and we remind ourselves of our commonalities. This is deeply healing in a culture that hates differences. Democrats against Republicans. This gender against that gender. There’s a whole lot more that we have in common than what is different between us. Unity matters and the only reason we ever fail in our efforts to improve our society is that we start fighting against our own team or we give up from hopelessness. How much more powerful we are when we connect to the larger community rather than only the people who voted the way we did. We disable ourselves by finding endless faults with others because we cut off so many opportunities for connection. We can really make a difference through simple actions. Through our behavior of caring for others who we don’t know and have no personal investment in, we are better role models for kids who are already being entrained into the negatives.
So, go build a bridge with anyone, especially with those people who you like to think of as your enemy because they voted for Trump. Or they didn’t vote for Trump. Or they didn’t vote at all because they were disgusted with the whole thing. Let’s look for what we have in common with “those people.” You may even find that their reason for voting the way they did is very similar to the reason you voted the way you did; the difference is you think your candidate will do it, and they think their candidate will do it.
So, let’s do this for the upcoming week. Look for common threads. Notice similarities. Show an interest. Smile. Be available. Enjoy the presence of other people rather than just waiting until it’s your turn to speak. It’s an act of service to society, and I believe it is also a spiritual act. Perhaps think of yourself as a missionary (the good kind) who is here to share the positives.
I think if you are not already moving through your days in this way, you will enjoy this practice a lot.