When I was taking a walk in my new neighborhood yesterday, it didn’t occur to me that I’d chosen to set out at the end of the school day until I noticed the sea of children trailing down the sidewalk to various houses.
As I always do with strangers, I offered a polite smile whenever I happened to pass them. Most of the younger ones never noticed me, preoccupied with friends or parents. The adolescents didn’t want to notice me, or anyone else really: faces averted and earbuds in, they slouched down the sidewalk with their shoulders slumped from the angst of that particular age.
And then, as I was just turning back onto my street, I ran into a young boy – old enough to walk home unattended but young enough to still be wearing a colorful bright backpack. I smiled – and then paused, startled, when he stopped and said, “Hello, miss.”
“Hi,” I replied automatically, “how are you?”
“I’m really good,” he answered. He was holding a school paper with a little sticker on it. “How are you?” It was clear he expected an answer; this wasn’t the casual how-are-yous adults throw out as we rush by.
I decided to treat the question with the same seriousness in which it had been asked. “I’m good, too,” I said, “and thank you for asking.”
He smiled again. “You’re welcome,” he replied, and then added earnestly, “I hope you’ll enjoy the beautiful weather we’re having today, miss!”
I got a kick out of the whole encounter. Perhaps his parents taught him how to engage in small talk with a stranger; perhaps he was imitating conversations he’d heard elsewhere. But he was enthusiastic and sincere and warm…and it actually put me to shame a little bit.
I don’t know that child or who his parents are, but he was genuinely open to interaction with another random human in a way that I – and I suspect most of us – rarely are. We say “How are you?” more as a greeting than as a genuine inquiry; we rush by, with grocery lists and tasks rattling around in our heads, and don’t hear or wait for a reply. We keep our heads down. We avoid eye contact.
It’s the internet’s fault! cries the anti-tech crowd, shaking their fists at phones and tablets. But I don’t think that’s fair; for some, those devices and the internet are meaningful ways of connecting and reaching out to others – they can engage us more in others’ lives than we might otherwise be.
Rather, I think our own insularity and selfishness is to blame. We live in a society where, increasingly, we’re told our main concern is ourselves. That we have no obligation to others and no duty to see them. That it’s madness to take five minutes of your day that could go to so many other things – like family! or ministry! or work! – and spend it on casual interaction with a person that you’ve never met before and may never meet again.
But those brief interactions matter in their own way. You never know when God might be using you, or when a chat with a stranger might spiral into a place of ministry. And if nothing else, taking a moment to get out of your own head – to look at someone and really see them – can be validating and loving all by itself.
We must not let those small opportunities go. Loving starts with connection, with engagement, with presence. Be where you are. And take advantage of the moments when your path crosses with other people’s.