After more than seven months of living in DC, I’m ready to talk about my amazement at how the people in DC generally don’t connect with one another. For instance, recently, while I was washing my clothes in the laundry room of my building, a woman came in; I looked up and said hello and she looked away and proceeded to do her laundry without any acknowledgement that I was there. To me, it is very disconcerting to be around someone who knows you are there but chooses not to engage.
Although not engaging with people you encounter happens in all cities, DC seems to have a unique flavor to it. What I’ve observed is that some people seem to be distracted or caught up with getting to their next appointment, while others seem to CHOOSE to not connect; it’s almost as if they have made NOT connecting with other seemingly sane human beings a personal philosophy that must adamantly be maintained.
Many of you may know that one way I practice the principles of Respectful Confrontationis to engage with anyone I encounter for the purpose of bridging the gap of separation. I have to admit that, since my time in DC, I have enjoyed engaging even more with these “anti-connection” individuals to see how far they will go to not connect. Try it when you pass people on the street, or in the lobby of a building, stores, restaurants and other public places. It’s fun!
You may be saying, “Joe, people don’t have to connect if they don’t want to; why should you impose your personal philosophy on them?” I would answer, “That is correct. It is not up to me to impose anything.” However, consider this:
There is a very good chance that this young woman will finish her laundry and head out to her work that is probably committed to social justice, peace, world hunger or any number of humanitarian issues. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, while she is choosing to not connect with me, she is thinking to herself how frustrating it is that her organization is not having the impact she had hoped it would.
If she did engage with me, and we happened to somehow get into a discussion about this, I would have shared with her the following: one of the core reasons we have world hunger, war and crime is because we are choosing not to truly connect with those who are different from us. How do we let the atrocities continue in Darfur? How did we read reports about thousands and thousands of people systematically being hacked to death in Rwanda and do nothing about it? How do we talk about cutting taxes for the rich when millions of people in this country (believed by some to be the greatest nation on the earth) are living below the poverty level?
Because we CHOOSE to not truly engage with these people as people and we see them as statistics or impersonal entities. We have no emotional or relational connection to them. When we see others as statistics and choose not to connect with them, we have no compassion for them. Yes, we may feel sorry for them; we may even donate money to help them. But true connection and real compassion leads to direct action to alleviate the suffering of others.
How do we expect things to change on a global scale if we aren’t even addressing the issue in our own personal lives? Every time you don’t engage with people on the street or in your building, you reinforce this disconnect and create more distance.
Acknowledging a stranger on the subway or in an elevator won’t immediately solve world problems. But if we all commit to engaging with people we don’t know, we slowly and systematically overcome the separation, judgment, prejudice, fear, and ideologies that promote an us-them mentality and allow us to support policies that promote inequality and injustice around the world.
So, turn off your phone for a few minutes on your commute to and from work and look around. Say “no thank you” to someone who is trying to sell you something on the street instead of ignoring them. When someone wants you to sign a petition, say “I’m not interested, but thank you for putting in the time to be on the street and commit to something you believe in.” Look up when you are walking on the street or entering a building and nod to the people you pass. Take out your headphones in public places and listen to the sounds and conversations around you. You might learn something new that could inspire you and open you and others to the new solutions we are all seeking.