That robin hopped onto the deck, carefully checking out the territory. He looked at me through the window; I looked back, silent, immobile. We connected for one moment, then he was gone. But that instant of connection made this forest personal, alive. When have I linked eyes with a stranger, affirming their existence, making our shared space in time full of meaning?
A robin and a human! We had little in common, but our eyes meeting and sharing that pause was enough to make an impact on me.
There are times when a small gesture can reach across differences between us humans, as well, whether the gap is formed by skin color, ethnicity, class or just a lack of personal relationship. Glenn, my husband, will never forget the first time he went into an office in Ferkessédougou, the West African town where we lived, to pay our water bill. He had to stand in line a while, and when he got up to the window he immediately began to state his business. The clerk looked at him, silent for a moment, then said, “Don’t you greet first?” Ah. So Glenn started over, greeting him first very politely, and all went well. Lesson learned: greet first, then do business.
That gesture recognizes the personhood of the one you are addressing, we found out. There, it is a must, even at a cash register or when buying tomatoes in the market. We had some re-entry shock when we returned to the U.S. and saw people talking on their phones while paying the cashier, never addressing her, or walking past each other on a sidewalk on a sunny day in cold silence in the suburbs, eyes averted. Crowded city areas are of course another thing. But why not try the more personal approach in other settings?
Glenn is the master shopper in our family, and he has fun connecting with people this way. When he comes up to an older woman, he may even try adding things like we would do back “home” in Ferkessédougou: “How are you today? And how is your family?” Smiles are the response. After a long day of working as an anonymous servant, someone has acknowledged them as a person.
The city neighborhood where we live is really good at doing that, too — Black culture encourages those connections. I walk by two elderly men sitting on a porch and they call out a greeting. I pass a woman walking her dog and she waves, says “hi” and asks how I’m doing. And there is the farewell that warms our hearts, called out even if the person just opened a door for us at the store: “Have a blessed day!”
Let’s all practice noticing each other, extending warmth especially to those who are different from us, reaching across divides to demonstrate that love that we are called to live out. After all, we are told to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18 NIV) A friendly greeting is an easy way to start something that could lead to a meaningful connection. A little further in the same chapter in Leviticus it says: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” (Lev. 19:34 NIV) Israel needed to remember what it felt like to not belong somewhere, even after living there for years. For many of us this verse is a reminder to empathize with our “neighbor” who might be a foreigner in our country or a stranger to us.
We can be like that robin, oh so different from me, who stared at me without fear and connected across our shared space. I was there, he was there. Together. And my morning took on a fresh new feel.
My book of poetry, When He Whispers: Learning to Listen on the Journey, is available on these sites, WestBow Press, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon: