As children, most of us had the innocent yet firm conviction that we would grow up to be something super cool like a fireman, astronaut, marine biologist, doctor, or even the President. Regardless of the profession, I am sure we all imagined that we would be making a difference in our communities, maybe even the world. My own youthful aspirations were grounded in a desire to help other living things. First, I wanted to be a veterinarian, then a doctor, then a psychotherapist. Sadly, a string of poor life choices took me far off the path towards cultivating what I thought at the time would be a respectable, rewarding, and well paying career. I eventually found my way out of my own metaphorical forest with the desire to help others still intact, however; the journey out meant that I had to rebuild my life from the ground up.
Far removed from the world of science academia that I had spent most of my education and first job post-college in, I sought work in retail to get back on my feet. I now work as a salesperson selling loose leaf tea and tea paraphernalia. Tea happens to be my biggest hobby so, I will admit, it is a bit of a niche job but it is certainly not where I thought I would be at the age of twenty seven with a great education under my belt. The store I work in is located in a busy mall. One day, I passed by a young couple sitting together in one of the lounge chairs. The girl was sitting in her boyfriend’s lap, his hand on her thigh, her arm around his neck, and in each of their other hands was a smartphone to which their faces were glued. It struck me as both sad and disturbing; even though they were physically close to one another, their attention and minds looked worlds apart. When I passed them again on the way back, not much had changed.
By just watching people, I have come to know the root cause of most of humanity’s suffering to be the systematic degradation of human connection. The worst part is, we are allowing it to happen. To illustrate my point, let me ask a simple question. How many people do you know who would rather text message than pick up the phone and talk to you? Are you one of them? Sure, technology offers us the ability to do things more quickly and to “multitask” but at what cost does it come? I often wonder if we are trading meaningful connection for convenience. It’s true that an increasing number of people prefer texting to talking. Many people choose online shopping, where you can pick out your desired item and have it delivered right to your front door with a few clicks, instead of having to visit a local store. You never have to talk to a salesperson. Now, most fast-food restaurants have apps where you can place your order ahead of time and pick it right up when you arrive, with minimal customer-employee contact. Social media allows you to stay in contact with many people but do you ever wonder if staying so “connected” and “social” is actually decreasing the quality of the relationships you have? Do you REALLY have that many friends? What does “friend” even mean anymore? What happened to quality over quantity?
I don’t think technology is inherently evil. It is allowing me to write this blog post online for others to read and (hopefully) benefit from, after all. It doesn’t seem to me that we are using it with the discretion we should be though. There is no emogi that delivers the same experience as actually seeing another person smile. Texting should never be a sufficient proxy for hearing the warmth in someone’s voice when they tell you “I miss you”. Seeing an LOL on your message screen will NEVER be as gratifying as hearing that you have ACTUALLY made someone laugh. In our attempt to go faster and faster and get more done, it dawns on me that we are leaving something behind: our humanity. Connecting with others in simple and meaningful ways is a concept that is becoming increasingly aversive and strange to people. As human connection becomes more foreign, it is easier to discriminate; it is easier to judge; it is easier to ignore suffering; it is easier to commit acts of violence; it is easier to take a human life.
We as a society can’t just do away with technology. We cannot move backwards, only forwards. Barring some cataclysm, we will never be separated from the technology that has become so deeply embedded in our culture as a species, however; I like to think that there is a solution to every problem and this one is no exception. Back in the 1960’s and 70’s it was easy for a movement to have a single figurehead or vanguard but that is in the past; we now live in the age of social networking. It is easy to think that, unless you are in a profession that is known for helping people, you can’t do much to change the world. I used to be one of those people but now have a different view. I think the only way to reinstate genuine and regular moments of human connection into our lives is to simply keep that as a conscious goal no matter what we are doing. That means making small acts of kindness a mainstay in our daily routines. That means we can do our part to “save the world” no matter what we do. That means everyone makes a difference.
Now, instead of seeing my work in retail as just a sales job that pays the bills; I try to use it as an opportunity to make a small difference in other peoples lives as well. No matter what kind of day I am having, I work hard to remind myself with each and every person I see that I have no idea how easy or difficult their lives are; I can’t possibly know what they are going through, and I just might be the kindest face they see all day so I better make it count. I try to not only perform my job duties but engage them in a memorable conversation, educate them about a product I am passionate about (tea), and send them out the door smiling and having laughed a few times whether they purchase something or not. I have found that this practice is not just the greatest contributing factor to my success as a salesperson but also the reason why I love to go to work. I feel like I do more than just earn a paycheck; I am doing what I can to make difference. No matter what you do, try to look at it not in terms of why you do it for yourself but why you do it for others. You never know, one day, you could save a life simply by smiling, saying hello, and doing your job.