At the Dixon household we have a wonderful dog, Pebbles. She’s a cross between an American Bulldog and a Pit Bull. Sweetest, cutest dog. A 65 lb sack-of-muscle love nugget. She’s also a total social spastic. When greeting people, she comes running with a full body wag so powerful that she rather regularly makes her tail bleed if it hits something hard. (Or can leave bruises if it hits you repeatedly.) With other dogs, she has no real idea how to behave. We got her as an adult, so we have no idea what her puppy years were like but can certainly see she was never properly socialized. So, she runs up to other dogs and barks in their faces. Her tail is wagging and she definitely only wants to play – but the other dogs (or, more accurately, their owners) don’t always know that.
I was thinking of this on my morning walk to the Santa Barbara pier today: that very often people also have a hard time connecting. As is probably the case for many people on many a walk these days, I encounter numerous homeless people as I clock the miles. As I see people carrying their belongings around, looking for a place to wash up, to rest, to eat, it is not lost on me that being homeless is a ridiculous amount of work. Everything is harder. Particularly connection.
One guy I passed was feeding the birds with a loaf of bread. He looked very down on his luck but was obviously getting a lot of joy out of what he was doing. I walked over and gave him some cash and said, “You’re feeding the birds and now here’s something for you to grab some food with.” He beamed. It certainly gave me joy. The joy of connection. It’s the biggest payday a human can have. And we quickly unravel without it.
Humans really are such social animals. That does not mean that we are good at it. Like my dog, I can be a bit of a social spastic. Everyone who meets me, and some who have known me for years, think I am a natural extrovert, comfortable with large groups of people and being at the center of attention. The truth could hardly be farther from that. I spent most of my youth paralyzingly shy. I have always been looking in from the outside since I was a wee lad. Always had a problem fitting in. When I left boarding school and went off to college, I made a vow to myself; now I was going to speak up, to fit in and make my presence felt. And so, I created the persona I have now, which is the person most people know me as. People who know me a bit better, however, are aware of the conflict between the two, and then there are my long-time close friends who know the quiet guy who finds comfort in 1-1 connection, or being alone, not group chitchat.
The reason I write all this is that one way or another, I’m talking about all of us. We all have a desire for connection, but we’re all covered in our own set of buttons that may thwart real connection. Most people have spent zero time figuring out what buttons they have, or where the buttons came from or how they get pushed, so they become pinballs, bouncing off emotional surges. Some people bark in people’s faces without realizing it, when in truth they just want to be “seen.” Noticed. Recognized.
Some years back, I was walking through Dupont Circle in DC and a homeless fellow had set up an art exhibit on the sidewalk. Thousands of people walked that pavement in the hours he was there. I’ve always been interested in art, so I stopped to see what he had. When he smiled at me, the state of his teeth told the story of a probable long-term battle with drugs. We got to talking and he told me he was famous and, amazingly, pulled out an old magazine where he and his art were a featured article. He had come a long way since then… After chatting for a bit, we did a deal for one of his art pieces that, as I recall, involved some cash plus Pepsi and cigarettes. As we concluded our transaction and I got ready to head back to my hotel, he stopped and looked at me very earnestly and said, “Thank you for seeing me. People walk by here all day and they work so hard to not see me at all.”
It was such a huge learning moment. I loved the art piece and I’m sure he loved the cash and goods, but it was the connection that made the moment. People crave it. They need it. And like my dog, they don’t always know how to create it. Or they are just bad at it. Perhaps they are just too scared or too scarred to bring it about. But love and a yearning for its reciprocation is in everyone’s heart somewhere.
I have made it a point since then to physically reach out and touch those I meet whenever appropriate. I put my hands on people’s shoulders. I hold their hands a little (little!) longer. If I know them better, I hug a beat longer. I look them in the eye and make sure they know I SEE them. I try to have love in my heart when I do it. I’ve found it really matters. The shy, introvert me may still shatteringly flub conversation at times, but I want people to see love in my eyes.
So many people are hurting right now. And so many people have little clue how to love or be loveable. But deep down, perhaps where they don’t even recognize or know it, they want to love and they want to be loved by others. They just may be unable to draw those lines and connect those dots.
We all have our prejudices and we can all benefit from lowering the bar on who deserves our love. – Or what kind of life we require people to be living before we let them qualify for it. They are all worthy. Many are struggling. And they all need to connect.
Behavior change can come about from many motivators, including negative ones. However, as motivation wanes, the behavior change will go with it. If you’re interested in true, long-lasting behavior change, the key is in identity.
The way we imagine our personal and national identities makes us liable to act and think in certain ways and, just as importantly, makes us liable to interpret other people’s actions through the prism of our own imagined identity – not through theirs.
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