Stranger Connections

What I have realized from not traveling this year is that I am still very connected to a lot of people every day. I am on the phone or some messenger app all day long. There are lots of conversations occurring with lots of touch points just the same as it would have been in person. In many ways it’s been business as usual for most of my work day. There is something very different though. What is missing though is the new people I would randomly meet on my way to or from somewhere. Being surrounded by plexiglass, masks and spaced out arrows has hindered our ability to connect.


There are so many things this virus has taken from us but I believe one of the biggest is our ability to smile at each other. Complete strangers passing in the grocery aisle politely saying excuse me as we pass and giving a friendly smile. We may not talk to people we do not know in full conversation but there is always a connection that occurs between us when we at least make eye contact or smile at each other. That knowing look of understanding in a situation, the friendly smile just because makes us remember there are others in the world just like us. Looking to connect, to not feel lonely or just to be nice.


It is my hope when this is all over the return of smiles between strangers will be tenfold as people desire new connection with people. I personally feel starved for it. The ability to strike up a conversation while you are in a waiting room or standing in line is something to look forward on having again. There was so much loneliness and isolation before this virus and the use of masks has only made that worse for so many already limited in social connections. This virus certainly has shown the specialness of friends and how important they are to our lives.


Some would being polite and smiling at people an act of kindness. I agree with that but I believe it is also about our health. Being able to freely communicate even with just an expression gives us a tremendous boost to our own mental well-being for feeling confident, connected and encouraged. It also provides physical benefits of increased energy from the happy feelings it generates. All from casual encounters with perfectly nice strangers who traded a smile with us and the mix of family and friends we regularly engage with. Given the year we have had I think most of us agree we need more of this in our day.


The trouble is I think these problems of not connecting with enough people in our day already existed well before this virus restricted us physically. Our own isolation through cellphones as well as our disregard for others was already a common occurrence. We rarely can look someone in the eyes or initiate conversations when we are constantly holding our phones to our face. We had national days of kindness and programs encouraging people to do a random act of kindness to remind us we are still human. We have anti-bully policies in our schools and work places too. All because we have forgotten or never knew how to be nice to each other. We have forgotten simple social graces that help us know how to interact and behave around other people.


It is healthy sometimes to want some alone time or be by ourselves a while but when that becomes our norm over and over again we start to lose that willingness and ability to comfortably connect with others in real life. We forget how to do it and it feels awkward and weird so we don’t do it as much when we have the chance. We can even avoid situations that may result in interacting with others or use our phone to close off from them. Masks are only the latest evolution of our disconnection with other humans.


If there is one thing though that I hope the dreaded mask gives us is the realization of how much we have been missing in connecting with other people. Real people standing right before us in line or next to us in waiting rooms. Real people with frizzy hair, loud kids, and heavy carts they are pushing up and down aisles, just like us. Even if we had nothing else in common other than heavy grocery carts and loud kids it is still a connection that binds us. It is someone else in the world who shares in what we are feeling and knows what it is like. We are not alone.


That really is the crux of it all. The idea that we feel lonely and isolated in a world with billions of people living on it. We have become unbalanced in how we life the more technologically advanced we become because we have lost our ability to connect. We have forgotten what it is like to be connected with each other, with our community, with nature itself. Maybe it is as simple as volunteering to pick up trash in our neighborhood or smiling at a stranger. Maybe it is as simple as putting down our phone and having a meal with our family at our table.


The premise of living more naturally in the modern world is about connecting to things and people that make us feel alive and enriched. They allow us to grow and learn from those experiences to expand those connections even further. I believe it starts with a random smile with a stranger we meet in passing.


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