Recently I was lost at the train station in Lyon. I needed to find the spot from where my BlaBlaCar driver would pick me up. Walking around in circles in the somewhat dead shopping mall (it was a Sunday), trying to see if google maps would be more conclusive, a young man approached me. Vous etes perdu?
That’s as far as my French goes: Yes, actually I am lost. The young man proceeded to gift me the next five minutes of his life by walking me through the whole building and to the place where I needed to go. He didn’t really speak any English, and my French is rather basic. But I managed to figure out that, no, he wasn’t accidentally going in the same direction. He was truly generously offering his time to walk me all the way. (And it was not short!)
I would have never thought that sort of guy would have it in him to do so. Yes, I’m being judgemental. But let me explain.
He had earphones in, his posture was rather slouched, a kind of empty look on his face. Those type of characters you see on the train and think they resemble more zombies than humans.
At the very least you would never approach one of them to ask for help yourself, they seem so far gone into their own digital world. Well, I was mistaken and therefore humbled and therefore even more grateful.
The incident made me think about all the public spaces we rush through, almost holding our breaths, all of us relieved when we are back in the safety of our own bubble. Where somehow by a magic wand we become ‘human’ again. Because out ‘there’, the preferred way of travel is online but disconnected from each other, the fellow travelers.
Instead of asking someone for directions we ask Google maps.
Instead of asking someone to take a photo of us, we take selfies.
Instead of asking someone for the next best restaurant around, we ask TripAdvisor.
We have all that information readily available at our fingertips. And surely it has helped me in many situations also.
But there is a prize we pay for it, and it’s becoming more and more apparent.
We don’t need each other anymore
Technology is doing it all. And in the process, we create a collective ambiance of disconnection, in which it gets harder and harder to ask for help, or to say it more dramatically, to keep our humanness.
We have all been there: on the bus, train, station, some public place, where everyone is glued on their screen. No eye contact. You might accidentally smile at someone and nothing (not even a twitch around the eye) comes back as a response.
It’s a horrible feeling. What’s their left to do? Why, get my own phone out, of course! If no one wants to connect, I’ll connect with my tribe online. Seems the only safe space to be.
And yet! What opportunities are wasted! That guy in Lyon totally made my day. I kept the fuzzy warmth inside of me all day and it’s still here, part of what makes me write this. One simple act of kindness and generosity and such powerful ripple effects, as all of you get to read about it now!
I’ve already been doing that as part of my ‘creating more fun and play’ in life, but I’m committed to doing more of it.
Asking for help.
Instead of Google, I ask the people around me. Any public place I’m in, I always first ask a real person, before I ask my phone.
Recently I was in a small grocery shop trying to decide which are the best olives to buy. So I asked the shop attendant near me which were her favorites. She called out across the whole shop to the front. Another customer overheard came rushing over and insisted on her favorite brand. A nice chat followed and everyone was uplifted.
It also goes the other way around: whenever I see a couple of friends taking a selfie, I always step forward offering my professional (not) photographing skills. Smiles and gratitude are always the results.
Little things. But these little things function as a lubricant of society. We all like being helpful, useful and needed.
We like being given the opportunity to express our generosity.
We need opportunities, little ones, to practice our kindness, our humanness. And back in the past, I guess, there were plenty of those. People were not so self-sufficient. So we got to experience ourselves closer to our own hearts through that ebb and flow of giving and receiving in the ocean of social life.
Now, we are shouting out loud: I don’t need you anymore. I have my phone!
It’s killing the spaces in which we touch each other, in which we come together whether we want to or not. Trains, stations, shops. Places we could use to nourish ourselves with. To create unexpected moments of magic.
But we don’t, because we are scared of being rejected. Gruntled at. Given an icy look. Disconnection is indeed painful.
My own experience is that at least 9 out of 10 people I ask for help are more than happy to do so. Even if it’s about trying to find the best olive. Something happens in that small little exchange, some unspoken gratitude in the silent space. If you look in the eyes of the person, it says
Thank you for seeing me. For acknowledging that I’m here.
It also brings a little bit of the unexpected into everyone's lives and shakes the monotony of the day-to-day. People get invited to be more awake to the present moment. I know, that I truly appreciate it when someone shakes me up from my daydreaming.
The one out of ten who is not helpful or interested in connecting at all, well, poor fella is probably just having a bad day. Who am I to tell.
So in a world where individuality and self-sufficiency are being praised, I say, Bullshit. We need each other. Desperately. Even more so now with all the disconnection through technology.
We are all feeling it. So let’s start with the little things and ask for help.