The Will to Connect

I am, in many ways, one giant dichotomy.  An absent-minded perfectionist.  An easy-going neurotic.  A whiny optimist.  Stubbornly open-minded.  Charismatically awkward.  Humbly conceited.

I like to think that I live my life in the middle in order to avoid extremes.   I guess you could say that my seemingly contradictory personality comes from my nature of being drawn to the grey area on the black-white spectrum.  Or maybe it’s because even though I’m 23 years old with a degree in Human Development and a minor in Tricking People into Thinking I Have My Life Together, I have no idea who the hell I am.  But that thought is kind of disheartening, so I’m going to go with the former explanation.

The area of my personality where I experience the most dissonance is with my relations to people.  On the one hand, I’m as outgoing as they come.  I’m loud, energetic, and personable, and if you’ve been lucky enough to catch me at some sort of social event, you may have even been fooled into thinking that I thrive on the energy of being surrounded by others.  But I’m going to let you in on a secret: deep down, I’m a loner at heart.  What you see at the party is really just me making up for the other 80% of the time that I’m alone with nothing but my own thoughts.  Not only do I spend a lot of time by myself, but I like it that way.  While I’m probably the most extroverted introvert you’ll ever meet, at the end of the day, I’m still an introvert.

There’s a stigma associated with being introverted, and the societal assumption is that there is something wrong with those of us who are energized by being alone.  I find that to be pretty ironic, because it’s that same society that does everything in its power to avoid human connections.  We wear headphones on the train to tune everyone else out.  We pull out our phones in the elevator to evade small talk.  We look straight ahead as we walk down the street so as not to make eye contact.  And I mean “we” in a very literal way.  I am guilty of all of the above (as well as other, more extreme examples, like steering clear of certain establishments in my hometown in fear of seeing people I know).

I haven’t always been this way. During an era when most kids were being instructed to never talk to strangers, I was taught to always smile and say hello to the people I passed.  I remember being a kid and not being able to fathom how two people could share a sidewalk – a four-foot wide space with nowhere to hide – and not even have the decency to acknowledge each other’s existence.  Yet here I am, 15 years later, engaging in the same behaviors that I once found incomprehensible.  What’s changed in the last 15 years that has caused me to act this way?  Has living in this world made me jaded toward other people?  Or did the norms of society simply train the friendliness right out of me?

I was thinking about this as I was walking downtown a couple months ago.  I watched the people that I passed on the sidewalk, each one with their eyes locked straight ahead, each one fixated on the task of getting to where they needed to be.  It’s a feeling I know all too well; mind racing in nine different directions, so caught up in my own busy life that I fail to take note of what is right in front of me.  With every hurried body that I passed, I realized that I missed the days when saying hello to the strangers whose paths I shared was the norm.  I decided in that moment that those days didn’t have to be over, and that just because the world had taught me to be aloof, didn’t mean I had to comply.  Just because I prefer to be in my own little world doesn’t mean that I can’t open up and let others in.  And so, among my goals for 2014, I included “Stop Being So Antisocial” as a challenge to slow down and appreciate the people that I encounter each day.

Now that we’re a month into the year, I can happily say that I’ve made more progress with this goal than I ever expected.  The last month has been full of random, memorable experiences that I would otherwise not have had.  I’ve created inside jokes with my barista.  I’ve had 45-minute long talks with my fellow mid-morning gym goers (all the middle-aged moms in the club say HEY).  I’ve shared genuine side-splitting laughs with the guy sitting next to me on the airplane.  And want to know the crazy part?  It all happened so easily.  All it took was a mental shift.  It was loosening up the reins on my own agenda and allowing myself to take in my surroundings.  It was changing my perception of strangers from “you are an unnecessary part of my day that I have to deal with” to “we have the potential to make each other’s days better.”

Don’t get me wrong.  Thinking this way requires conscious effort, and I can’t do it 100% of the time.  I still have days when I want nothing to do with any other human being; when I wear my headphones on the train and rush in and out of the checkout line without anything more than the obligatory “hi” and “thank you.”  But if I can make just one unanticipated human connection each day, I think I’m doing alright.

This month-long social experiment has made me realize all sorts of things.  I learned that even though I live in the third largest city in the United States, it’s really just a small town, where everyone is separated by less than three degrees.  I learned that people don’t suck nearly as much as I thought they did, and in fact, most people are pretty awesome.  Most importantly, I learned that this cultural phenomenon of tuning the world out is not as real as I once believed.  People are willing to take off the headphones, to have a conversation, to make you laugh.  You just have to be equally willing to let them in.

There are 7 billion people in this world.  Each one has a story to tell, if we’re just available to listen.  I know I will never come close to hearing even the smallest fraction of these stories, but there is certainly no harm in trying.  We’re all in this life together.  And the least we can do is show our support, whether it’s through a smile, a question about one’s day, or a conversation about Sky Mall magazine.

I love my “me” time and always will.  But I also know that when I look back on the happiest moments of my life, in those memories, I am not alone.  So much of what is beautiful in this world involves our relationships with others, whether those relationships are fleeting, for now, or forever.  And so I move forward, balancing my tendency to turn inward with my craving to connect, all the while trying not to lose sight of the one thing I know to be true: that it’s other people that make life worth living.

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