Lost in the Crowd
Flying in and out of a big airport recently, I was struck by how few people ever made eye contact with me during the 2 hours we called it home. It was very odd. Because we had waited in the same lines, offered our identity to gloved handlers who made sure our faces matched our photo, literally rubbed shoulders as we retrieved our possessions from the TSA scanner, and knelt alongside one another to put our shoes back on. We were living a shared experience without acknowledging our togetherness. I quietly wondered how many of us were widows, how many of us were grieving someone, how many of us had received a dreaded diagnosis and I mourned our lack of community.
I bustled down one of those moving sidewalks. The one where some are grateful to rest and ride while the icy and stoic veterans of the runway brusquely walk past. I found my departure gate, located an open chair, unwrapped my over-priced sandwich, and indulged in a little people watching.
I felt like I was watching fish in an aquarium. My son and I were aquarists for years with both salt and fresh water tanks. At night we would turn on the light that lived inside the hood that kept the fish safe from the cat and watch them swim around in their little underwater world. It was like having pop art in your den. The yellow tang, azure damsel, orange and white striped clowns, spotted triggerfish, and elegant angels would claim first one corner and then another, darting behind or inside the miniature sunken ship for rare moments of solitude. They never made eye contact with one another or with you, but they all knew where the container of food resided and when you made your way to that, they would swim in quick formation to the top to await their feeding.
So it was with us. The glass-walled airport was our home away from home. We the little fish swimming inside, darting inside restrooms or restaurants for rare moments of solitude. It was like watching pop art in a public place. The garish overhead lights accentuating the neon colors of clothing, the white lettering on T-shirts, the “whoa girl!” make-up applied by eyes not yet fully awake. Avoiding eye contact with the other, we rose in formation when our group was called to board. It was at once a claustrophobic and lonely experience.
An archaeologist would remind us that isolation for humans is dangerous. That isolation makes us vulnerable to predators and defenseless when attacked. That being unaware of others and our surroundings is, in and of itself, dangerous. We are pack animals, healthiest in a tribe, happiest when we belong to someone or something.
My day in the fish tank was a reminder that being truly seen and authentically known by another is an increasingly rare experience in our age of online identity and text messaging. We long to be understood, to have our story heard, and yet continue to isolate ourselves from the contact that makes such a knowing possible. Reaching out, being the first to lock eyes and offer a smile is a gift we can all afford to give. Isolation is never a good survival strategy.