Every person, with very few exceptions, has a spark of greatness in them. No matter where they come from, there is something to deeply appreciate in each person. So, when I encounter someone who, at first, rubs me the wrong way, I try to stop and think: am I embracing the challenge of finding this person’s greatness, or am I being lazy and leaning into my assumptions.
It’s frightening how often my mind takes the shortcut. Those times have become fewer as I’ve gotten older though. My ability to identify redeeming qualities in people has gotten stronger with each new person I meet. There may be something that bothers me initially about someone, but I quickly dismiss it as one brush stroke in the complex tableau that is who they are. Eventually, and in short order, I find other brush strokes I like and others I can’t imagine having lived without seeing. Eventually, the strokes that bothered me in the beginning are almost fully obscured, placing me in the company of a deeply cherished friend or colleague.
I feel that, lately, we are losing not only the ability to see the greatness in one another, but the ability to see others at all. We ask them to conform and fit into the boxes that make us feel comfortable even as we tell them we want them to bring their authentic selves to us. This failure to see -- and embrace people as they are -- is taking us down almost unimaginably dark paths.
Recently, in Palo Alto, I have started to see more people who are very clearly unhoused. There’s the person wrapped fully in a sleeping bag in the California Avenue pedestrian underpass. There was the woman who, exhausted from what I could only assume was a day of walking with a heavy load asked me which direction she needed to go to get to El Camino. There are the two gentlemen with overflowing shopping carts who walk up and down California Avenue — one during the day and the other at night. This is not an exhaustive list.
Palo Alto is one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the country, and in the time I've lived here (nearly four years), I have felt the number of unhoused people grow. I am no better than any other commuter who speeds past on her bicycle to work or to yoga cursing at cars along the way. I am complicit, and it tears at my soul. I see these people, but I do not see them. The finer muscles I use to see the greatness in those I interact with are part of a larger, atrophied muscle group.
I recently watched a documentary called “The End of Men”
, an exploration of how men are wrestling to re-define manhood as the landscape of work shifts and more women join the workforce. If a man defined himself by the work he did and his ability to provide for his family, what is a man when that disappears? He is an individual -- one we are still struggling to fully see as an emotionally vibrant and dynamic human being. I finished the film feeling that both men and women have gone unseen in different ways for far too long — to say nothing of those who are transgendered. One of the greatest challenges we face is learning how to see one another as individuals rather than through the shortcut of gender.
I spent the holiday weekend in Death Valley watching both of my phones die (even though I desperately tried to keep one alive as a camera — the vistas really are incredible). Eventually, I floated away from the digital world entirely. I re-learned how to fully enjoy the company of the people in my immediate environ. My blood pressure went down, my heart rate slowed and my mind finally had time to march in lockstep my lived experience.
Eventually, I re-emerged and joined the world of cellular service. My phones buzzed and jingled back to life. I eagerly sifted through the messages to see what I had missed only to realize I had missed nothing I wanted. The superficiality of my digital connections fell on me like a ton of bricks. No one messaging me knew my context, that I was covered in three days of sweat and sand — eager to share my experience. They just knew my coordinates: email, phone number, handle, username. I worked hard to hide my tears on the hours-long car ride back to the Bay Area, knowing there would be no one there to share my experience with when I got home.
Then my work phone came back online.
I’ve spent the past week thinking about why my return to so-called civilization had been so jarring and unpleasant. Here’s what I’ve concluded: In the desert, I fell back in love with genuine connection and enjoying real people in a real, shared context, and I realized that I was going back to a life where all of my meaningful connections would be virtual — buffered through my devices. I wasn’t making memories. I was making data.
I am not a luddite, and I firmly believe technology can be used for incredible good. But when I returned home, I wanted to be seen and to see others. I didn’t want their tinny voice in my ear, or a text message of obligatory holiday greeting. I didn’t want to spy on them through the Instagram looking glass only to despair at the life moments we might have shared. I no longer wished to be theoretically connected while being actually alone.
It will take time for me to reverse this literal disconnect. Being in people’s physical presence takes effort when you live far away from friends and family. It takes money and time, and it takes using devices with the intention of making face-to-face contact. That contact is what my soul needs. It is unfortunate I don't live in a place that gives me that as easily or as frequently as I would like, but it does not mean true connection is impossible.
I hope that by getting back into the practice of connecting with people outside of my devices, in real life and on mutually agreeable terms, I can begin to exercise that larger muscle group again of really seeing that which should never be unseen — people in need.
Alright, the five:
P.S. Trent Gilliss
is leaving the remarkable radio program On Being
. One of the most incredible conversations I have ever had was with Trent. He’s truly a warm and gifted soul. I wish him the best as he embarks on his next adventure.