For the past two years I’ve been smiling at people as I pass them. Neighbors, people on the sidewalk — in line at the store. Even folks sitting in their car waiting for the light to change — and homeless people on the side of the road. I look people straight in their eyes and smile.
It’s difficult to look straight into someone’s eyes
It’s scary — I think, maybe they won’t smile back. Maybe they’ll think I’m up to something, or have romantic interest. Maybe they’ll smile back, and I’ll have locked eyes with a stranger. That would probably be enough to make most people want to look away. I don’t. I smile a bigger smile. It’s terrifying and gratifying.
Sometimes my smile finds its way to yet another human who acts more interested in the latest spam in their inbox — or their smartphone lock screen. They successfully dodge a personal connection. We’ve all done it.
Before the internet
Looks, touches, favors, and friendships used to be our communication currency. Friends and families got together for meals, outings, or to help each other out. Neighbors got together to host neighborhood garage sales. In some neighborhoods that still happens. To this day in my old neighborhood, neighbors watch each other’s houses when they’re out of town, bring food to each other when they’re sick, and chat around the clothesline on sunny afternoons.
And, who doesn’t think of an ‘old neighborhood’ like this with fondness? A place where everyone knows each other. Everyone looks out for each other. A place where a cup of flour for that cookie recipe is just a few steps, a knock, and a smile away. A place where conflicts are settled face-to-face rather than anonymized and de-personalized online through a comment thread.
The internet provides us with countless opportunities to connect
Just because these opportunities exist, doesn’t mean we have to use them. Just because it’s a friend’s birthday, doesn’t mean we have to post “Happy Birthday” and some witty Giphy on their timeline. For me, Facebook provides the much needed reminder to pick up the phone, and give an old friend a call. Catch up on their life. See how the real world is treating them.
The internet is novel
A toy or appliance that’s new and exciting often sits on a shelf after the novelty wears off. If you’ve ever purchased a juicer, you know what I mean. During the first few months that I owned my juicer, I juiced everything. Eventually I shelved it. Then the real useful life of the appliance began. Now I take the juicer off the shelf for interesting recipes, exotic cocktails, and afternoon brunches. The new useful life started only after I stopped juicing entirely. The pendulum swung to both sides, and settled in the middle.
The pendulum of internet and social media usefulness is in flight. It’s still on the new and novel side— in most cases. But, just as Kardashian gossip and pop culture thrives on the novel side, so does disconnection and hate speech. This novelty has found its way into our lives and displaced real life with fantasy for some. The problem is, over-reliance on anything novel leaves us gutted when the novelty wears off. And the novelty will wear off.
The pendulum will settle in the middle. It’s only a matter of time before we begin to see the real useful life of the appliance called the internet and social media take shape. One day we’ll put our new appliance on the shelf. When we come back to it, we’ll realize it’s meant to help make our lives easier— not to become the center of our lives. At least that’s what I hope.
Something as simple as smiling at someone on the street is important
People are important. In-person connections are important. Neighborhoods & communities are important. Anchoring our lives in the real instead of virtual is of paramount importance.
Strong neighborhoods & communities aren’t created through proximity or common causes alone. Empathy isn’t created through disparate experiences and hollow online connections. Real community— the stuff that the old neighborhood is built on, isn’t virtual. It’s the smiles, and occasional frowns. First contact. It’s built on the foundation of real interpersonal connections, however fleeting or simple. It’s those connections that make all the difference. It’s those connections that will propagate the love and peace that this world so desperately needs.