In a society of technology-driven isolation, is the key to a more compassionate world simply taking the time to really see one another?
driver flipped me off on the road the other day. It was bred of a simple misunderstanding, but it stung all the same.
I was waiting to turn left when the driver approached in oncoming traffic, right turn signal flashing. I paused to allow him the right of way.
Instead of turning, he slowed, then waited. I gestured for him to go, but he responded with a full stop — impatiently, if a car can convey such a thing. I understood then that his turn signal was in error, so I hesitantly began my left turn. That’s when he flipped me off.
Sometimes the world feels full of strangers.
A few months earlier, on a different road, an SUV scraped my car’s back bumper. I was parked in a bus zone with a sleeping baby in the back seat when I heard the crunch.
We got out and approached each other, guarded. She mumbled about being late. I fumbled for the right words and assumed a stoic air while she fished for insurance information and snapped pictures with her phone. And then I saw it — the outline of a car seat through the back window. She was a mother, a commonality that made me see her as another human being.
I took a closer look, at both the scratch and my attitude, and immediately softened. The damage was slight and superficial. The cost of making her pay for it would be far greater.
I told her to forget about it.
She sighed with relief and I stopped putting on a front. She had a three-year-old son at home. They loved the Please Touch Museum nearby. We were going there later, I offered. She was downright lovely and incredibly grateful. I told her to pay it forward; she promised she would.
Did I soften with the SUV driver simply because she was a mother? Was it because I actually got out of my car and saw her standing before me?
• • •
Susan Pinker devoted an entire book, The Village Effect, to exploring the importance of face-to-face contact, which she claims is crucial for fostering happiness and human relationships. A summary of the book on Pinker’s author website explains, “Not just any social networks will do: we need the real, in-the-flesh encounters that tie human families, groups of friends and communities together.”
How, then, are we to summon empathy in the absence of such human contact? From the vantage point of two places we spend so much of our time — shielded inside cars or behind computer screens? How do we cultivate a sense of shared humanity, that there’s always a person on the other side of the safety glass?
In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, a secular guide to making the world a more compassionate place, Karen Armstrong laments the low priority of compassion in our cultural ethos. Maria Popova featured Twelve Steps on her popular website, Brain Pickings. In the post, Popova recalls an instance of a prominent young entrepreneur announcing his New Year’s resolution to read a book every two weeks, only to be met with an Internet headline declaring it a “shameless act of propaganda.” Popova wonders, “What failure of compassion has led us this far astray from even holding up a mirror to one another’s highest selves and not our basest, or even giving each other the benefit of the doubt?”
Over the mid-winter break, we visited family in Pennsylvania. One cold, bright Friday afternoon, I sat in my van on the side of the road, my boys bundled and buckled in back, as we waited for my niece to come home from school. The yellow bus slowly pulled up to the corner and as the children streamed out, I caught her deep purple winter coat, cinched at the waist, in the crowd.
I’d never been to this corner before, never watched these children spill out of this bus. But the scene felt so familiar that I had to blink back tears as I turned my gaze skyward. Parents in cities and towns all over the world are living the same story. I pictured their paths illuminated like electric arteries extending across a nighttime map. They wait for children as they ready supper and straighten the house. They rush to the bus stop or stand by the front door; they open their arms or hurry home from work. They kiss soft heads and help slide off backpack straps, offer a snack, ask about days.
This was not my child, my street, my bus stop, but it just as well could have been.
Motherhood can serve as an expedient shortcut to shared human experience. But do we need that kernel of familiarity to extend common kindness? I recently read a heartwarming tale of generosity set in a Naples café, where patrons left money to cover coffee for strangers never seen. One local described this “suspended coffee” as “a simple, anonymous act of generosity … a small treat that no one should miss.”
Panera Cares cultivates a similar sense of shared responsibility in the U.S. through its nonprofit community cafés. These eateries rely on customer donations to cover the retail value of menu items and café operating costs, and offer a pay-what-you-can model for patrons struggling with food insecurity. Panera encourages these subsidized meals to be consumed within their cafés as a means of building community.
In For Love of Country, Martha Nussbaum makes a case for cosmopolitanism, or the notion that we are “citizens of the world.” Our first allegiance, above national or religious affiliation, should be to the worldwide community of human beings. We should, as The Stoics suggest, “recognize humanity wherever it occurs.”
Of course I connected with the SUV driver who dented my car; I saw something of myself there. But what would be enough? How tenuous the thread of human connection? A shared neighborhood or street? A simple love of coffee?
What would it take for you to see yourself in every car you pass, every house along the road?
At its core, Armstrong explains, compassion invokes the Golden Rule, or treating others as you wish to be treated. Twelve Steps traces the history of this enduring concept — fundamental to the monotheistic religions, but predating them by several centuries. In fact, it was Confucius (551-479 BCE) who championed the concept of shu, “consideration” or “likening to oneself.” “[P]eople should not put themselves in a special, privileged category but relate their own experience to that of others ‘all day and every day.’ ” Confucius called this ideal ren, a word that originally meant ‘noble’ or ‘worthy’ but that by his time simply meant ‘human.’
There are moments when the universe contracts, when our focus narrows, becoming singular, shared — at least for large swaths of us. We debate the true color of a dress, ponder the mystery of pi, lament the lost hour during daylight savings time. At times like these, it becomes clear we share the same space, tread on common ground. We approach the call of Stoic philosopher Heirocles to make “all human beings more like our fellow city-dwellers.”
• • •
The other day, I climbed into my car only to hear a song that recalled a painful past breakup. There was one person I wanted to tell — someone I’d never met. I dashed off a nostalgic note that lit up a phone halfway across the world.
We’d found each other on Twitter through our writing and migrated our fledgling friendship over to Facebook Messenger, where we recounted play-by-play emergency room visits and marital tensions, professional disappointments and deeply private confessions. Both writers and personal essayists, we were quite accustomed to splashing intimate details of our lives across magazine pages or web screens, connecting with unseen strangers over shared stories. Eventually we sat face-to-face in a downtown Manhattan café on a bitter cold March morning, laughing like old friends.
Relationships forged in the Internet ether are not only real, but proof that it takes little to find intercontinental common ground. Social media is a salient way to diminish the differences between self and other. We can connect to anyone, from anywhere, at any time. Formalities fall away, distance disappears. We are never alone, a follower or friend always at our fingertips. We are closer than ever before.
In a recent New York Times Opinion column, NPR’s Scott Simon wrote about how tweeting from his mother’s hospital bedside during her final days “widened [their] world.” Twitter is a “medium where people share life and death stories,” Simon observed. “[O]ne of the ways we use social media is to … mark moments in our human story … scraps of our lives that we share with the larger world.”
Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth, has marveled at the importance and sincerity of her online friendships. A self-described obsessive introvert, she is often so keenly impacted by interpersonal interactions that it prompts her to retreat. Social media, however, allows her to connect with hundreds and thousands of others — writers, stay-at-home mothers — on her own terms and in a way that is still genuine. The virtual exchange of messages and photos transports her “in a way that feels safe, into another life — a reminder that everyone’s story is significant, and that I am not alone.”
We find familiarity, that strand of similarity — travels to Italy, a tantrumming toddler, a sick relative, a love of coffee — and we reach out. “I’m here,” we seem to say. “I see you.”
• • •
Martha Nussbaum closes her plea for world citizenship with the courtship of Cynic philosophers, and star-crossed lovers, Crates and Hipparchia. Hipparchia, an eminent female philosopher, was bred of a good family, with social status and pedigree, who looked down upon Crates, a cosmopolitan with radical ideas of shedding rank. Hipparchia “fell in love with Crates’ arguments and way of life,” and he was “everything to her.” “The girl chose him,” Diogenes Laertius writes, presumably “to show that casting off the symbols of status and nation can sometimes be” the way to love.
Nussbaum tackles topics as vast as universal reason and the moral values shared by all human beings, but she ends with a tale of just two. Because at its core, being a citizen of the world is about seeing oneself in another, recognizing that it is the personal that is universal, and acknowledging that which is common to us all.
It is why we are a people captivated by Arthur Aron’s formula of 36 questions and a four-minute stare to fall in love: in a lonely world, we want to believe we could connect with anyone, strangers even, as long as we took the time to really see one another.
Step out of the car, if only in your mind. Peer through the dashboard window to the person within. I see you, stopped at the corner, waiting for a school bus or a right turn. You are not me, but you may as well be. That you’re human, without more, warrants kindness. When we cross paths, let’s see each other for who we are — flawed, trying, familiar. We are all just fellow travelers making our way on a shared road.