My grandmother recently closed her greenhouse nursery after nearly 50 years of business, and gave me one last chance to go through her remaining inventory, so I drove two hours down and back. I needed to gas up partway back, just outside San Antonio.
While inspecting the plants on how well the plants were travelling, the man at the next pump commented on the need to keep them covered with a tarp (which they were). He inquired how far I had to go and whistled, but commented he knew that area because a friend’s horse was stabled near there. As he told where, I laughed—it was less than a mile from my house and I have to pass it every day.
He then commented that he used to work in Austin, and in fact had been in Austin last year on the day that a disgruntled man flew his private plane into an IRS office there. Not only that, but his job was to work on an AC unit on the roof across the highway from the building and he saw the whole thing happen, and showed me pictures he took with his phone. I commented that I saw the smoke from my house near the stables, halfway across the county, minutes after it happened.
From there we progressed to those we knew who were impacted directly by 9/11, or whom we nearly lost there.
This man and I never exchanged names. Our conversation was only about 10 minutes long, but we parted as comrades of a sort. We discovered commonality, and the deeper we went, the more commonality we had.
Common experiences, common tragedies, common living. These things bound us together. In a real, though tiny sense, it strengthened our society at large. When we talk with each other we reaffirm that which holds us together, and strengthens that bond. We may be a nation that, in a sense, worships the individual, but we must still remain interdependent as human beings and as a society. It is sort of like that series of commercials where someone helps someone in a small but needed way and is observed by a third person, who proceeds to aid another and so on until in an Escher-like fashion we return to the original scene. There are subtle but real threads that we have a hand in weaving or ripping.
Isolation destroys society because it causes us to forget that we are interdependent and that we are a society, culture, tribe, tongue, nation, world, etc. We forget commonality, and assume difference, leading to suspicion and/or apathy. Reaching out and interacting reminds us that the other person is part of our ‘tribe’ and therefore we are part of theirs. Even short, shallow interactions like my gas station conversation serve to remind us of these things.
There are many examples of this throughout history. One of my favorites is from WWII. The Germans and Allies honored truces on Christmas Day. On one battlefield, the Allied troops in their foxholes began to sing Christmas carols. After a time, they heard the Germans join in from their foxholes. For a few, all too brief hours, they shared in their humanity and their faith.
As faculty in today’s universities, it is far too easy to become isolated in our offices or labs, interacting only to teach a class impersonally or direct our research group or go to a dreaded meeting, then back to our cave.
Ask yourself, what is your society? How vibrant is it? How can you heal or strengthen it?