By Jennifer Waldburger, LCSW
Like just about everyone, I have a busy life. There is a constant swirl of emails, phone calls, and “stuff to do,” and stepping out of that vortex for a few days of vacation is always a welcome respite.
Not long ago, I was riding in a taxi on my way to the airport and was smack in the middle of my usual pre-trip scramble to tie up loose ends. I was on the phone with my business partner, who was feeling anxious about a big decision we needed to make for the company. We’d begun the conversation almost as soon as I stepped into the cab, and as we were talking, I started to feel an overwhelming sense of sadness. The longer we talked, the heavier I felt. Finally, I told her I needed to end the call, as I wanted to get to the bottom of what I was experiencing.
Almost as soon as we hung up, an important realization hit me right between the eyes: There was another being in the taxi with me, and I wasn’t acknowledging him at all. No wonder I felt sad.
That might seem like a strange perspective, given that taxi drivers generally seem respectful of a passenger’s wishes around communication. If you’re feeling social, they’ll happily chat away, but if you indicate that you’d rather not talk, they’ll usually follow your lead. In this case, the driver made no outward indication of having any problem with my being on the phone, but my sense that I needed to end the call was so strong that I couldn’t ignore it. And that’s when the magic happened.
For the next twenty minutes, my driver and I talked about his two grown daughters and his brand-new grandbaby. We bemoaned the traffic in Los Angeles, compared notes on a few shortcuts around town, and discovered that we both ate at the same great Indian restaurant. It wasn’t what we were talking about that mattered; it was that we were talking—two people brought together in a very small space for twenty minutes of our lives, simply honoring each other’s presence through our exchange. By the time we got to the airport, there was no trace of the sadness I had felt earlier, and I was so grateful that I did not miss the opportunity to spend time with this lovely being who was offering his service to me.
I work with parents as a psychotherapist and educator, and I’m always encouraging moms and dads to slow down, stop multitasking so much, and be fully present with their child as much as possible. That attunement is what builds trust and closeness in the relationship and gives a child a sense of security in the world and a healthy sense of self.
But after my taxi ride, I was reminded how important that attunement, or mirroring, is for all of us: We all need to be seen, heard, and acknowledged, both by ourselves and by others.
We all know what it feels like to be the company of someone who is distracted, whether they’re texting, emailing, talking on the phone, or just mentally or emotionally checked out. If the distraction lasts for more than a minute or so—or if there’s a pattern of distraction in a relationship—it feels lonely.
In fact, being in the presence of someone who isn’t really there can be a lonelier feeling than actually being alone.
Since that taxi ride, I’ve developed a love for the chance to really acknowledge the dozens of “strangers”—which I’ve come to think of as friends I haven’t met before—whose paths I cross every day, in addition to all the friends and loved ones I already know. There’s the young man at the cash register in the market and the woman doing my nails. There’s my slightly annoying neighbor who always wants to chat when I don’t have time and the person taking my ticket in the parking garage.
I don’t feel drawn to strike up a conversation with every single person I meet, but there’s always an opportunity to make a genuine connection: looking the person in the eye and smiling, saying “thank you” or “have a great day” and really meaning it, making a little joke just to share a laugh. These exchanges only take a moment, but they do require focus and concentration. I can’t be fully present with someone and be running my to-do list in my head at the same time.
As a happy side benefit, every time I connect with someone this way, I feel like I’ve honored and connected with myself, too. Genuinely connecting with others is genuinely uplifting!
A good friend of mine says that we teach what we need to learn, and so this post wouldn’t be complete without my acknowledging all of the loving moms and dads I have the honor and pleasure to interact with on a daily basis, who work so hard to do the right thing for their kids and provide the nurturing and support those kids need to be their best selves. My heartfelt thanks to you all for inspiring me to connect more deeply with myself and others and for reminding me that we change the world from within.
Jill Spivack and Jennifer Waldburger have been featured in a variety of media, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Good Morning America, The Today Show, CBS Evening News, Inside Edition, WebMD, Parenting, and Variety. They are the curriculum consultants to Pajanimals, a joint production with the Jim Henson Company and PBS Sprout. They are also the co-creators of award-winning book and DVD, The Sleepeasy Solution. For more, please visit their website, Facebook, and Twitter.
*Photo by Samyra Serin.