photo by Ryan Seyeau
When was the last time you stood toe-to-toe, face-to-face, and had a conversation with a total stranger? A couple of days ago I had an amusing chat with a lady while grocery shopping. I’m pretty sure it’s the first time I ever participated in a conversation that began with “Do you know anything about cheese?” (She was searching for ingredients for a new recipe she wanted to cook that evening.) We talked for several minutes and shared a few laughs. The brief interaction was a pleasant break in my busy day.
I don’t remember many instances from the last few years when someone I’ve just met struck up a conversation and said more than one or two sentences. It seems to me that the simple actions of making direct eye contact and socializing are becoming a lost art.
This thought was further impressed in my mind the next day while I was outside cleaning my poor, neglected, bug-encrusted car. At least six people walked down the street within fifteen feet of me without so much as a polite nod in my direction. Trying to be friendly, I looked up from my grimy sponge with a smile ready on my face each time I heard someone approaching.
Most of them, ranging from grade school kids to middle-aged adults, were absorbed in their own worlds with their heads bowed over smart phones. There were a couple of them who were walking erect and looking around; they were the ones who, with a flash of surprise on their faces, quickly averted their eyes and made no response when I said “hello.”
Such a lack of human connection does not appear only in the presence of strangers. With a few of my long-term friends, though we may have conversed for many hours during the years we’ve known each other, we’ve probably had less than ten minutes total of direct eye contact.
One gentleman I’ve known for ten years or so seems to only be comfortable having a discussion while staring just past my right knee. It’s almost become a challenge to me to see if I can make a comment or crack a joke that causes him to look me in the eye for a moment. Occasionally I’m successful more than once during a single conversation!
A younger man I’ve known for about half that time is the unrivaled king of eye contact among all my friends and acquaintances. Before he locked me in his laser-beam gaze for the first time, I thought I was pretty good at holding eye contact. During our initial introduction, I felt myself cringe under his unwavering stare. (“Doesn’t this guy ever blink?!” I wondered.) I was determined to continue the eye contact for as long as he appeared comfortable with it.
As we continued talking, I started unconsciously looking over his shoulder at people walking by because his intense scrutiny was uncomfortable for me. I realized what I was doing when he started turning sideways every few seconds to see what was going on behind him. Talk about embarrassing (but quite funny, really)!
By now you may be wondering what these rambling anecdotes have to do with the theme of this Merry Hearts Medicine blog: “finding moments to choose joy and happiness.” Please allow me one more quick story, and then I’ll get to the point.
I have known many sweet souls who spent the last days of their lives suffering with health problems that eventually took their lives. I’ve also seen the heartache of those who lost loved ones suddenly and unexpectedly. When I sat by a wheelchair or bed to visit with the sick or spoke with a grieving relative at a funeral, do you know what they talked about?
One frail friend of mine who was in the nursing home after losing her husband showed me a gold and red velvet crown she had won during a beauty contest at the nursing home. She lamented the fact that “I can’t drive myself to the store anymore. I’d give anything to buy some jewelry to match this crown.” My neighbor who lost a battle to cancer several years ago repeatedly mentioned how “the sunshine looks so beautiful today. I wish I had the strength to go outside and give my new truck a fresh coat of wax.” A good friend of mine lost his son in a tragic motorcycle accident last spring. As I hugged him and his wife after the funeral, he whispered in my ear, “If only he had been able to put more money in his savings account before we lost him!”
What? Are those statements sounding a bit ridiculous to you? I imagine they are. Those people were my friends, just as I described them, but those are not the words they spoke. From your own experiences, you probably have a good idea of what they truly talked about. They spoke about friends and family, about special moments, about relationships. Physical things did not rank high in importance at those poignant times in their lives. Mental, emotional, and spiritual bonds are what gave them the strength to smile in spite of their grief and pain.
Making direct eye contact, greeting a stranger, or holding up your end of a conversation may not instantly create a powerful, enduring bond with a person; but it is a start in a good direction. The main idea I’m hoping to convey today is this: the things that matter in this life and the things that will bring you true joy are not actually “things” at all.
It may seem paradoxical to recommend this in a blog; but right now is a great time to turn off this screen, go look someone in the eye, and make a connection with a real, live person.