This past weekend, I took a flight from California back to North Carolina. It was a long flight already, but with the delay and the three-hour time difference, we could have mistaken it for a trip overseas.
During our layover in San Francisco, I shuffled around with my overpacked suitcase, trying to spot two seats in the waiting area that were side-by-side, to enable my husband and I to sit together during our wait. After a few minutes, he decided to wander off to search for food, and I did what we all do almost impulsively in this in age — I took out my phone.
Somehow, this time, I caught myself. Perhaps it was the moment that I looked at my screen and wondered, “What was I looking for again?” But in that moment I realized how automatic our connection to technology is, and yet how disconnected we are from the people around us.
I sat there in my seat and began to look around. I will admit, I felt a bit awkward, realizing that the vast majority of people were also engrossed in their technological devices. As I met one woman’s eyes, she looked away quickly.
I began to reflect on how we can be so together, in the most literal sense, and yet so alone. As we sit in a crowded airport, or walk through an urban street, we are surrounded by people, but often completely unaware of what is happening around us. Author Sherry Turkle discusses this phenomenon in her book “Alone.” This phenomenon that as we turn more to technology, we turn less to each other.
Sometimes this can be explained as a cultural norm. For example, certain things, like riding an elevator or a busy city bus, almost come with the social norm of minding to yourself. Acting excited to see and get to know the person next to you on your city bus ride would certainly be the exception and not the norm.
And yet it seems that this social norm has extended into not only the public spaces, but also into spaces that have, for centuries, and for almost all cultures, been considered private spaces as well. Across human history and over time, who we define as our neighbors, and even who we define as our kin, has gotten smaller and smaller, and closer to what is only immediately around us.
What do we define as our homes? Who do we define as our neighbors? Do we walk into our homes each evening, passing the houses next to us the same way we pass people as we walk through city streets? Or do we know the people who live around us?
In the Islamic Tradition, there is a hadith, or saying of the Prophet Muhammad, that states, “He is not a believer whose stomach is filled while the neighbor to his side goes hungry.” Scholars interpret the concept of “neighbor” in this saying as not only the immediate homes around you, but also up to multiple blocks to each side. Being a neighbor then requires more effort. It requires not only being there when called for help, but building connections, building community so that you are connected enough to know before someone has to ask.
Let us try, with our small, everyday efforts, to redefine human connection and to revisit what it means to be neighborly. Let us not confuse online likes and shares to authentic communication. Let us not forget (or never know) the long-lost art of letter writing. Let us not be unaware or indifferent to the struggles and joys of those around us — the ones that aren’t often glamorous enough to warrant a Facebook post. Human connection is not dependent on WiFi. It is only dependent on how much we are willing to step out and be the first to say, “Hello, I am here, I am your neighbor.”