“Make new friends but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.”
That traditional Girl Scout song has been sung by generations of young children in America, where school kids grasp the warm hands of each other even if they’ve just met. Strangers become instant friends.
Children are born unafraid to connect with other children. It’s how God made us.
We’re also born without phones in our hands, but now we grasp our devices like the stuffed animals we clung to as toddlers. We’re glued. In our connected world, we are not connecting. My own frustration with this navel-gazing mobile hypocrisy makes me want to scream “LOOK UP! LOOK UP!” at all the hunched-over humans I see staring down at their glowing screens.
My phone addiction frustration reached a fever pitch when I heard the slogan “If you see something, say something” blaring over the loudspeakers on a New York City subway platform. Living in a city on high terror alert, I came to a realization. With everyone, including me, looking at our phones, and with our ears plugged up with earbuds, how can we possibly see or hear anything around us, whether suspicious activity or the more likely scenario – something truly wonderful?
I vowed to put my phone away when I was in public places, and what a difference. Now, on my downtown rides to my book publishing office right next to the 9/11 Memorial, I use that gift of time as an opportunity. It’s given me unexpected blessings. I’ve been making new friends!
A recent subway friend was a 75-year-old retiree from Haiti who experienced discrimination when she arrived here in 1960. Helene did not let prejudice stand in her way. Told she would have to go back to high school even though she was 20 years old, she got a job instead. Two years in, she was accepted to New York University. In 1965 she received her accounting degree. Helene asked if we knew each other from uptown, but I assured her we did not. We just recognized each other’s humanity. When she got off the train at 34th Street, I missed our exchange.
Since making my conscious decision to “friend” strangers in real life, I’ve met all sorts of incredible people. There was the man from Togo who came here as part of an immigrant lottery and is now a U.S. citizen; the spoken word poet who just arrived from Vermont; multiple bankers who confessed they were unhappy in their jobs.
My new friends have come from all over the world. Most are immigrants. They hail from as far away as Egypt, Bangladesh, China, Korea, Ecuador, Trinidad and Scotland, and as nearby as Long Island, Queens and Harlem.
These recent weeks have been extraordinary as well, because some older friends have let me know my quest has inspired them, too, to put their phones away and say hello to strangers in familiar places.
One day, I met a woman who was drinking from one of those controversial red Starbucks cups on a very crowded morning ride. We were practically nose to nose. I used the coffee – an Americano – as an opener. We talked about our shared love of coffee and simply exchanged pleasantries. As I wished her a good day, she revealed I was the first person she had ever actually talked to on the subway. Wow.
Shortly after the attacks in France, I sat beside a young Orthodox Jewish man from Paris who was there that fateful night. In his thick French accent, he spoke about his fears and hopes for the future. My stop arrived sooner than I would have liked, as I wished I could have spent more time with him. He seemed still to be in shock – clearly shaken by the evil events.
Perhaps we can overcome our fear one connection at a time by looking up into the eyes of those who are sitting next to us, or standing facing us. We can smile, say hello and connect with our eyes, our voices and our humanity. Maybe we can start a trend toward seeing something beautiful and saying something lovely. Wouldn’t that be a nice way to begin the new year?
If you’re looking for a resolution, try this one. It’s worth its weight in silver and gold!
Lisa Sharkey is senior vice president and director of creative development for HarperCollins Publishers where her team has published dozens of New York Times bestselling books. She also oversees video initiatives at the HarperCollins video studio known as Book Studio 16. Before publishing, Sharkey worked in television news and has won multiple Emmy Awards, a Peabody and a Dupont award for her work as a journalist. She is the author of the book “DREAMING GREEN: Eco-Fabulous Homes Designed to Inspire.”