My husband and I went out for a bike ride the other day and I tried to say hello to everyone we passed on the bike path. It was hard to do. Some people purposely would not make eye contact. Others added an additional layer of defense, their headphones.
I have often wondered why a simple hello or nod of the head is so hard for some people-especially when on a very sparsely populated path. That same person whose shared humanity you refuse to acknowledge may just be the person you shout for if you fall, encounter a wild animal or just lose your way. Like it or not, we are in this world together.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I am an extrovert. I want us (the stranger on the path and I) at least to say hello with a nod, a simple smile or an actual “hi,” to acknowledge that we see each other. It is true as the Meyers-Briggs Index asserts, that being an extrovert means getting energy from other people. So, maybe for me this need to solicit acknowledgement from a stranger is quite real.
In today’s politically divisive climate, many of us are even less inclined to say hello to someone else lest we inadvertently say hello to someone on the other side of the political divide. So while a ‘hello’ may be a step too far, I am reminded of the power of a simple smile.
A while ago I was working in an organization that did not allow me to use any of my creativity and capacity to connect. I was untapped and unhappy. At that time, I remember seeing a saying somewhere on the internet: “If you see someone without a smile, give them yours.” I wish I could remember where I saw this because while it sounds ridiculously simple, it is nevertheless really powerful. You may be skeptical too until you try it, as I did.
I tried it while taking a walking break from that soul crushing job. The office was set in an urban area and the neighborhood had quite a variety of people-from business professionals to homeless people staying at a nearby shelter. I saw a man riding by me (the wrong way, and on the sidewalk, but the rule follower in me decided to overlook that and smile anyway) and I greeted him with just a smile, no more. Amazingly, he smiled back. Emboldened, I tried it with the next person I saw. A woman not quite pulling a toddler along was my next beneficiary. I was afraid she would be too occupied and in a hurry to smile. When our eyes momentarily met, I flashed my smile and, there it was, a smile sent back to me. Wow, I thought. This really works.
“If you see someone without a smile, give them yours.” I thought the intent of that advice was to make someone else’s day brighter. What it actually did was made my day brighter and brought to my attention that while I may not be in a job that allowed me to use my powerful gifts, I nevertheless had the power to even momentarily, brighten another person’s day. That was a gift more to me than to anyone I encountered that day.
Off the bike path, I am also trying to make more of an effort to connect with people even if I actually think they are from the other side of the political divide. I have been inspired to do so by Linda Sarsour, one of the co-chairs of The Women’s March. She came to speak at an event I helped to organize and she urged us to make an effort to meet our neighbors. Now, when we most want to retreat into our homes and watch our own favorite brand of TV channels or read news from our own favorite internet sites, is when we most need to make that effort.
Sarsour, a Brooklyn born, hijab wearing Muslim, gave the example of the Japanese Internment and how it was allowed to happen, as a compelling reason to know our neighbors. Our neighbors may be the ones who will offer us protection against government overreach. We have seen that in our history with the Underground Railroad and in world history as well.
Perhaps you aren’t ready to meet all of your neighbors or to greet everyone with a hearty hello. Perhaps you may never be. I hope, however, that you will smile back at me if we meet on the path of life. That will make my day. Hopefully, at least momentarily, it will also brighten yours.