Need a Word of Encouragement?
Well-being & Our Collective Soul
I don't typically chat up taxi drivers. It's not my thing. The introvert that I am, I settle into the backseat and keep to myself the way God intended. They have a job to do. I let them do it. However, a while back, we were in London and the All London cab drivers in their boxy, black cabs are an irrepressible lot. When our driver greeted us, I asked him about his job and he began to fascinate us, telling us about something called, The Knowledge.
The Knowledge is the series of tests you have to pass to receive the 'green badge' which entitles you to drive one of these cabs. It's said to be the hardest test of any kind in the world. Each candidate must memorize over 25,000 streets, tens of thousands of landmarks, and the fastest, most direct routes between all of them. Tourist destinations, historic spots, museums, parks, churches, theaters.
Neuroscientists tell us the posterior hippocampus, the area of the brain most crucial for memory, grows as these candidates progress through the process, as they ride around the city on a bike or rented moped studying shortcuts and little known passages, experiencing traffic patterns, reading and memorizing maps, and honing geographic intuitions that don't show up on maps.
The overall process takes two to four years to finish, many dropping out as high-stress written tests and unforgiving oral exams are administered along the way before one is allowed the privilege to taxi folks through and around London completely by memory.
Exiting the cab, I felt the full heart of human connection. Yet, for some reason, I still often feel a resistance to speaking and engaging with strangers. For me at least, there's typically a real start up cost paid in the clumsy currency of social awkwardness when I try to connect like this to people I don't know, to people I'm standing with in line, and others, even folks I sort of know.
Nick Epley is a Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago. He studies things like this and his research suggests these little dialogues, even the fleeting conversation fragments we have in public spaces with each other, make a big difference both to us and to our society. They not only reliably notch up our own mood, but they break down barriers and enrich our collective soul.
The little effort it takes to show genuine interest in a stranger, to express good will, and show solidarity to one another as we travel through life together, is something we can all do. Just a friendly wave on the street or the positive exchange of smiles, gives us not only a measurable 'bump of well-being,' but reveals the truth that though we are all different, we share a common humanity that transcends our differences. Epley's research makes it clear that we vastly underestimate how much we and others are affected when we reach out to each other in a positive ways like this.
That is all to say, if you're like me, you may be systematically failing to do something that will not only make you happier, but really is what Christ, a curious combination of introvert/extrovert Himself, calls us to do - to be a presence for good in the lives of everyone we encounter, to offer friendship to all, and to connect with each other, knowing much of the time our needs remain invisible until we do. It's a strike back against indifference and hate.
So take some baby steps or next steps this week, connecting with strangers around you, folks you don't know, just a bit more. If it goes better than you think, be mindful of how it makes you feel. Be mindful of the reactions to your efforts. Or if you're good at it already, maybe turn your empathy dials, calibrating your listening skills even more. Find your voice. Fine tune your ears. You might even find out you have a new superpower.
Hear my deep and troubled breaths. Help me to find my balance in a chaotic world. Help me break down the barriers between what I think of as my religious life and my actual life, and be an active presence for good in the lives of my neighbors and the strangers I encounter, offering moments of friendship and solidarity, knowing needs are often invisible until I initiate connection. Help me to strike up meaningful conversations. Surprise me. Let me find my authentic voice in public spaces, in this bustling world, O God. I know a wave or a word to someone doesn't solve all the world's intractable problems, but this I offer to You to work a miracle. Help me, in this, not only to find well-being for my spirit, but offer well-being to another, thereby enriching our collective soul.
? Greg Funderburk