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One Level Deeper

As I was driving home yesterday, I saw our new neighbor out for a walk with his infant grandson. I rolled down my window and called out: “Hey Al! It’s Paul. How are you and Isaiah doing this afternoon?”. “Oh, we’re doing fine. Just fine. The sun is out, making me feel alive, although Isaiah doesn’t like it when it gets in his face too much.” said Al. “I heard that, man. Me and Isaiah are on the same page.” I said. We kept on for another minute or so and then I wished him well and urged him to enjoy the beautiful day.

Al and I only met a few days ago while I was out walking dogs and he was out with Isaiah. He’s one of dozens of new people I’ve met in the last eight months or so, since I began challenging myself to go a little deeper with every person I encounter. Being a natural introvert, it’s not always easy to summon the energy for human interaction, but, on the other hand, part of me really wants to engage with more people in my everyday life and get to know their stories. So, in the last few months, I have been practicing going “one level deeper” with everyone I come in contact with. Nothing earth shattering. Just being mindful of my urge to disengage when it comes up, and then staying in the interaction and digging a little deeper. It usually only takes a minute or less and the results have been heartening. Here are some things I’ve done:

  • If I give a homeless person some money, I also ask their name and then text it to myself so I’ll remember it when I see them next. Shabazz, Betty, Eugene, and Pete greet me every day on my way to and from work and I really enjoy knowing more about their lives. If I have time, I sit with them for awhile and I learn a lot.
  • Through the same self-texting method, I’ve managed to remember all the names of the kids who work at the cafe that I frequent and I ask them small questions about their lives when they aren’t too busy. They all greet me by name now and our relationships are 100% friendlier than the boring, transactional ones we used to have.
  • My friend Lamar is a security guard at a jewelry store that I walk by every day. We met because one day I said: “You know, I walk by every day and I don’t even know your name. I’m Paul.”  Turns out, we grew up about ten blocks from each other in East Oakland and we have a lot more in common than you would think. Now we talk several times a week and we encourage each other to follow our dreams. We even texted each other well wishes on Thanksgiving.
  • Then, sometimes, I sit and read at my local cafe for an hour or so after work. If there are no other tables available (it gets quite busy), I encourage people to share mine. I’ve met a holocaust survivor, a painting professor, a physicist, a numerology expert, and dozens more interesting people this way. I have found that if people are willing to share a table, they are willing to have a little chat and I am always amazed at how incredible these folks are and how fascinating it is to learn about them.

A few months after I started this little project, my results made me realize how much I had been self-isolating over the years, how little energy I put forth in order to expand my sphere of people and experiences, and how happy it made me to be doing the opposite, now. I liked this new way of doing things. A lot. Because I realized that it was softening me. It was making me more receptive, more empathic, and more loving, really. It reminded me that, despite all evidence to the contrary, people are pretty great…and I needed that reminder…even more than I knew.

In the end, I think most folks I engage with feel just as isolated as I used to. But meeting someone who seems interested in them and wants to hear their story is like medicine for both of us. They get to tell a stranger a story he’s never heard before, and I get to learn whatever it is they have to teach me. It’s not just a conversation. It’s a gift giving ceremony. It’s an even trade where we both come out feeling a little bit better about humanity through temporarily sharing our attention with each other…and that’s worth something.

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