On my daily commute to work, I walk from to and from the train station. It’s not that far – about a half a mile – and I feel lucky not to have to step in a car every day. Many people, though, drive to the train, even a few who live right near me.
A few Fridays ago, a guy who I know a bit (a wave, a nod, pleasantries exchanged every now and again) was driving home from the train. I was in a rush to get home to see my kids, and at that moment on a hot day, “hey do you want a ride?” would have been a welcome overture. He didn’t offer, and while he was driving off I got to thinking about the distance between us, the oh-so-sacrosanct space of aloneness that we create when driving our cars, when sitting in front of our computers, when shopping online, when plopped in front of our HDTVs, and how through all the progress we’ve made, we’ve traded in the crush and human connection of the sawdust-floored marketplace, of common spaces, and of all the unexpected, simple happenstance that comes from living our lives stumbling and tripping over one another.
In the late 90s I lived in Madrid, Spain, in an airy one-bedroom apartment that opened onto a quiet, bright courtyard. It was the second time I’d lived in Spain and it took this second take to unlearn my frustration at the “inefficiencies” of Spanish life: on Sundays, everything – and I mean everything – was closed except for churches, coffee shops and a few restaurants, and since the internet wasn’t yet so ubiquitous, my (now) wife and I developed a cherished ritual of going to a local coffee shop with the newspaper and spending hours wiling away the day, talking, and working on the crossword puzzle.
When we left Spain, as part of our goodbyes, we went door-to-door to the fruit shop, the butcher, the baker, and the cheese shop to say goodbye to the shopkeepers who had become part of our lives, who had advised us on dishes and taught us the words for pastries and cuts of meat and the best local cheeses. Yes, going to a shrink-wrapped supermarket is more efficient, but shopping for food wasn’t a chore when it was filled with conversation and questions about how last week’s dinner came out.
I worry that with all the efficiencies we’re creating, we’re also facilitating a habit that’s averse to basic human contact. It’s easier to smile and look away, easier to walk into your car than to offer someone a ride, easier to click and compare than get to know a salesman or a store owner or a neighbor.
The irony is that people crave genuine human connection. We’re just getting woefully out of the habit.
Just crack open the door a little for someone and you’ll see the light flood in.