Several cities ago, I would head out the door every morning at 6:15 AM to “run.” Daredevil that I am, I took the same route every day, gallumphing in a loose, clockwise square around the limits of my neighborhood.
And every morning at 6:25, I waved to the dude who ran counterclockwise.
I never did learn his name. Counterclockwise guy was probably in his late fifties, with the businesslike gait of someone who had spent time in the military or a college-level sports team. He ran faster than I did but not a lot faster, and he favored light-colored tee-shirts. That’s about all I knew about him.
Yet we greeted each other day in and day out, exchanging pointless but satisfying commentary about the sun or the heat or the wind. I noticed when he went on vacation. He figured I’d had my baby when I disappeared for six weeks. When I left town, I’m sure he wondered where I’d gone. And I wonder about him every now and again– if he’s still running. If he ever reversed course.
Sociologists call this kind of bond a “weak tie.” It’s an interaction with another human that is glancing and brief, the nod to your neighbor or greeting your bank teller by name. Weak ties are relationships that are, by definition, shallow.
Along with many other things, Covid has shredded weak ties. It’s hard to maintain anything but the most essential relationships when you’re stuck at home. And worrying that your fellow humans might kill you if they breathe on you tends to put a damper on casual conversation.
It might not seem that way at first blush, but that’s a deep loss.
For me, the loss is both societal and personal. Although I’ve been informed that, as an introvert, I spurn casual interaction in favor of intimate, meaningful communion, the truth is that I’m a weak tie junkie. I would be delighted to discuss last night’s storm with you, or the agonizing pace of the DMV line, or the vagaries of middle seats. Do you want to vent about yesterday’s game? I am here for you! Care to kvetch about the coffee maker? Hit me up!
I truly value these fleeting, freight-free moments of connection. And you should, too, because, stitched together, they make up the fabric of civilization.
I don’t think this is hyperbole. When you raise your hand to wave at your neighbor, when you stop to chat with the receptionist, when you exchange eye rolls at yet another gate change, when you joke with your waiter, you are saying I see you. You are a human being. We are here together.
Acknowledging another person’s humanity, even if– especially if– you don’t know that person particularly well, is powerful. It is profoundly healing. It allows us to be more than a swarm clans competing for resources. And, sadly, it is out of fashion.
Covid might have dealt them the coup de grace, but weak ties were beginning to fray before the pandemic. The Internet is many things, but a raveler of human souls it is not. And 2016 both capitalized on and turbocharged the unraveling.
Whatever the reason, we’ve entered an era in which, to more and more of us more of the time, other people’s humanity is contingent. It is something others earn rather than something they are. In order to be worthy, you must be right.
And that is a very, very dangerous world in which to live.
Have you ever walked into a grade school classroom? I’ve walked into more than I can count, and I can tell you that there will always, always, be children who choose to do the wrong thing. Ineffective teachers view these children as problems or obstacles or pains in the ass. Effective teachers view these children as human beings. They acknowledge and connect with each and every child every day, regardless of what that child did or said. Effective teachers set and enforce boundaries, but they never treat any child as less than fully human. It is an immensely difficult thing to do– and it is transformative.
Human beings are often wrong. We are often, to varying degrees at various times, petty and small-minded and gullible and mean. But we are all, every single one of us, worth saying hello to on the street.
How’s it going? It’s a hot one today.