At a book club meeting this week, we discussed the crisis of fake human connection. We are more connected than ever through our cell phones and computers, but people feel a deep absence of authentic human connection. We talked about when meaningful human connections happen. Our group facilitator mentioned riding his motorcycle from Miami to New Orleans and how strangers would come up to him when he stopped for gas. They would ask about his bike or where he traveled. Another person in the group said that people loved to talk about her flan. Questions about different kinds of flan led to conversations about culture and national origins.
As we talked about occasions that led to authentic human connections, I remembered the time I was hitchhiking out of Chicago, and a businessman in a black Lincoln picked me up, and after asking where I was heading, offered me a drink of Johnny Walker. I declined but said that if he wanted to drink, I’d be happy to drive. He immediately pulled over. He began to tell me his life story; how he owned many gas stations in the Chicago area and lived in a penthouse apartment. He enjoyed professional success, but after his divorce, he felt empty and depressed. As he took another swig of whiskey, he said, “The only difference between a wino down on skid row and me is that I drink a more expensive brand of alcohol.” And then in a remarkable moment of human vulnerability, he said, “If you know the meaning of life, please tell me, because I’m getting old and I don’t have a clue.” He was being real. How often do we have conversations like that?
Today is Ash Wednesday when Roman Catholics and much of the Christian world receive the rude reminder that we are all going to die. As our forehead is marked with a cross of ash, we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” How is that for an encouraging message? It reminds us that we are mortal. Who wants to think about that? Wouldn’t it be great to retreat to Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, put on a mask, join the revelry, and forget that we are dust? And yet, there is something awesome about the knowledge of mortality that provokes us to seek authentic human connection.
I have seen it after the earthquake in Chile. I have seen it after the tsunami in Asia. Survivors of natural disasters share their emotion-filled stories of authentic bonding with other survivors when they realize how close they came to death and how they share the challenges of survival. A mother in Sri Lanka lost her children and husband in the tsunami. She wondered why she did not die. Seeing children in her village who had lost their parents, she began to rescue them and give them a place to live until they could connect with relatives. Her passion for caring for the orphans gave her life a sense of meaning and purpose.
One of the advantages of living in Miami is that we get to experience hurricanes. Tourists come to Florida and are happy to pay good money to ride on roller coasters to get a thrill. Some people pay to jump out of airplanes. But, we in Miami get thrills galore when a hurricane comes to town. And we don’t have to buy tickets. I remember Hurricane Andrew, Katrina, Wilma, and Irma. There have been too many to remember all their names, but the thing is that after the excitement of seeking refuge from a hundred mile-an-hour winds and rain, not to mention an occasional tornado, we get to experience life without electricity for a couple of weeks. That means no air conditioning, no refrigeration, cell phones go dead, and neighbors come out of their homes, and we meet and lament and share our stories over backyard barbeques (We have to cook the food before it goes bad).
These are the times when we truly get to know our neighbors. There’s nothing like a natural disaster to put a halt to our normal frantic lifestyles and create wonderful opportunities for human connection. I have a camper stove, and my wife makes the best Cuban coffee. Let me tell you, when the electricity is out, and it’s too hot inside the house, there is nothing like Cuban coffee to gather the neighbors and share stories of our mutual suffering. Now that’s human connection! Try to match that with a cell phone app.
I would love to hear your stories of authentic human connection. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and have a blessed day!!!