A passage in Bookworm’s piece for today resonated powerfully with me:
One of the things that has helped me be a nicer person is discovering that, if you ask the right questions, everyone has something interesting to tell. For that reason, I always start conversations with people — clerks, gardeners, guard gates, whomever. Saying “Hello, how are you?” as if you mean it (which I do) always gets a smile. Then, if there’s time, commenting on something that you know matters to the other person — her artistic nail polish, his looking forward to the coming weekend, her manifest efficiency, his beautifully deep voice — often sparks a conversation. My favorite thing is when I can hear the conversation continuing with other people in line after I’ve moved on.
I very strongly believe that part of America’s falling apart is that we no longer see or speak to each other. Once upon a time, daily commercial transactions bound Americans together. At the grocery store, the butcher’s, the hardware store, etc., we’d see the same clerks and run into the same friends and neighbors. Those small interactions, repeated over and over, create a strong sense of community. I know that’s true because, for all its political leftism, that’s what life was like raising kids in Marin County. I lived in the functional equivalent of a small town, recognizing people wherever I went. Few were friends but all were friendly.
Stunningly appropriate to these hyper-digitized times. Actual human contact is a biological and psychological necessity, one that’s become ever harder to satisfy. Indeed, there are well-documented cases of neuropathy, some involving actual Central Nervous System atrophy, that were traced to the victim having gone too long without human contact. (“If you are not stroked, your spinal cord will shrivel up.” — Dr. Eric Berne) The proliferation of ways to communicate that don’t require proximity has put many millions of us in danger of such a malady.
I know he’s terribly out of fashion, but I find the wisdom of Dale Carnegie to exceed that of all the self-help flacksters of our time put together. In his most famous book, How To Win Friends And Influence People, he made many powerful points about the gains to be had from routine human contacts. Here’s my favorite of the bunch:
I was waiting in line to register a letter in the post office at Thirty- Third Street and Eighth Avenue in New York. I noticed that the clerk appeared to be bored with the job — weighing envelopes, handing out stamps, making change, issuing receipts — the same monotonous grind year after year. So I said to myself: “I am going to try to make that clerk like me. Obviously, to make him like me, I must say something nice, not about myself, but about him. So I asked myself, ‘What is there about him that I can honestly admire?’ ” That is sometimes a hard question to answer, especially with strangers; but, in this case, it happened to be easy. I instantly saw something I admired no end.
So while he was weighing my envelope, I remarked with enthusiasm: “I certainly wish I had your head of hair.”
He looked up, half-startled, his face beaming with smiles. “Well, it isn’t as good as it used to be,” he said modestly. I assured him that although it might have lost some of its pristine glory, nevertheless it was still magnificent. He was immensely pleased. We carried on a pleasant little conversation and the last thing he said to me was: “Many people have admired my hair.”
A heartwarming vignette, isn’t it? But Carnegie has something more to tell us about that episode:
I told this story once in public and a man asked me afterwards: “‘What did you want to get out of him?”
What was I trying to get out of him!!! What was I trying to get out of him!!!
If we are so contemptibly selfish that we can’t radiate a little happiness and pass on a bit of honest appreciation without trying to get something out of the other person in return – if our souls are no bigger than sour crab apples, we shall meet with the failure we so richly deserve. Oh yes, I did want something out of that chap. I wanted something priceless. And I got it. I got the feeling that I had done something for him without his being able to do anything whatever in return for me. That is a feeling that flows and sings in your memory long after the incident is past.
Carnegie’s unnamed interlocutor in the above is representative of far too many people today.
I’ve been writing quite a lot about the trust deficit in America today. I tend to repeat myself when I do, because the central point is so simple and so clear. But there is something more to be said about it, even so:
Those with whom you maintain proximate contact are more easily trusted – and more easily made to trust you, you sneaky little conniver – than faceless persons at a great remove. I can’t prove it, but it’s held true throughout my 69 years. Yet here we are, attempting in our various ways to operate within a social structure that demands high levels of trust, while ever more eschewing proximate interactions with others. Is this terminally fatuous or has my watch stopped?
The Kung Flu BS has contributed to our social malady. In a sense, something akin to normal life was made possible by our ever-evolving methods of Internet communication and interaction. America could hardly have survived the lockdowns et alii without our digital marketplaces. Yet it cannot be denied that the combination has accelerated our movement away from human contact. The same is true for that most Orwellianly-named of all phenomena, the “social media.”
No, I’m not advocating that we should all trash our computers and our digital phones. I’m suggesting that we get out of the house and do some in-person stuff — without masks.
The climate of fear created by the Chinese Lung Rot and the attendant propaganda will make this difficult, but if we want our society to regain its former vitality, there is no alternative.
With the advice and assistance of Co-Conspirator Linda Fox, I’ve been getting into GMRS (General Mobile Radio Services) radio. This portion of the electromagnetic spectrum was originally intended for certain business and quasi-business uses, but is equally adaptable to non-commercial communications. Over the next few days I’ll complete a base-station setup with a reach of about 15 miles…after which I intend to provide inexpensive handheld GMRS units to my nearest neighbors.
(Yeah, yeah, call ‘em “walkie-talkies” if you like. They’re a lot more flexible, and usually longer-range, than the radios that originally bore that nickname. But they’re not hard to use.)
“Why?” I hear you ask? Simply because it will give me an opportunity to put some sinews on the bonds of our local community. I’ll call upon each of my neighbors and tell them something along these lines:
“I’m going to have a base station powered up and listening to channel X all the time. As I’m home just about all the time, if you have an emergency and need help, you can get my attention this way. If I can’t help you personally, there’s a repeater network through which I’ll contact others. Just keep this unit charged and where you can find it should you need it.”
You might not be in a position to do this. Still, think about alternatives that would have a comparable effect. For example, most of us have cell phones now. A telephone-tree for alerting one’s neighbors to problems or opportunities shouldn’t be hard to set up, at least if it’s kept to a couple of dozen contacts. The point isn’t that you “need” such a thing, but that by putting it together you can build community.
It will increase your frequency of contact with those nearest to you. It will get your neighbors thinking of your block as a neighborhood, rather than just a zip code where they eat, sleep, and do their laundry between visits to “the office.” You might even make a few friends as they warm to the idea and rope in others you haven’t yet met.
And you’ll keep your spinal cord from shriveling up.
Allow me to close with a favorite old quote, from Metaphysical-Era poet John Donne:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Now go and catch a falling star. (Or get with child a mandrake root; your choice.)