single serving friends

If you’ve never seen Fight Club, then the title of this post might not mean anything to you. I happened to watch it for the first time on the plane from New York to Dubai. Or maybe it was from Dubai to Abuja? Or was it on the way back? I can’t remember. All I know is that I was on a plane watching grown men kick the crap out of each other. Overall I thought the movie was bizarre. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but I’m still glad I watched it if for no other reason than I was introduced to the idea of a single serving friend.

The main character in Fight Club has a theory that while you’re traveling everything is single serving: the coffee, sugar, coke, snacks, toothpaste…even the friends. His theory perfectly describes the phenomenon that, in my opinion, is what makes travel truly worthwhile – connecting with perfect strangers on completely even ground. Imagine this hypothetical situation for a minute. You’re standing alone by the baggage carousel and another person comes to stand rather close to you. Most people squeeze as close to the carousel as physically possible, but not you two. You guys stand a respectful distance away, patiently waiting your turn to push through the masses and heave your bag off the moving belt. You have no idea whether that person is a millionaire or just scraping by. Whether they have a great relationship with their parents or forget to send even birthday cards once a year. Do they have a significant other? Are they good at their job? Do they tip well? How often to they exercise? What do they regret? You know none of these important things. Something about a 14 hour flight seems to even everyone out – no one gets off one of those flights looking very fresh. The typical markers of success, wealth, struggle, and failure are slowly rubbed away leaving a naked human being in their place. All you know is that you’re standing alone by the baggage carousel and they’re standing alone by the baggage carousel and somehow you feel like it would be a terrible tragedy if these two individuals standing alone didn’t somehow recognize each other. Maybe strike up a conversation. Maybe not. But at least turn to the other person, give them a little smile and an eye-roll that says “how freaking long does it take to unload some bags?” and by doing so, give a small nod of appreciation to that which is human and eternal and precious about the total stranger standing next to you. You may not know them, but you recognize that there is something worth knowing about them, so you open yourself just enough to smile or make a light comment about the terrible injustice of having to pay for a baggage cart.

For me, those little moments are the most wonderful, enlightening thing about traveling. Whether it’s merely a glance, the exchange of a few words, or a laughing conversation that ends in a warm goodbye, it is these completely random interactions, unburdened by the biases and judgments we bring to normal life, that prove to me just how wonderful it can be to be vulnerable. Next time you’re at the airport take a look around. Most people go into what I call “bubble mode” when they’re traveling. They stick the headphones in, crank up the tunes, bury themselves in a magazine, or glue their noses to the screens of glowing devices. Rarely does anyone just sit and look around, acknowledging the people sitting near them or walking by, soaking in the atmosphere of going places, connecting with the people making the journey by their side. Am I the only one who finds that so strange? That we all sit together in the terminal or at the gate or in the tin cans we call airplanes, getting ready to travel across the country or across the world side by side, and we hardly even look at each other? It’s weird. It’s disconnected. And I stumbled across a ground breaking not-so-secret about 7 or 8 long-haul flights ago… Traveling for 36 hours straight can really suck. Sorry for not putting that more elegantly, but seriously, the stale air, the airplane food, the uncomfortable airport chairs, the swollen ankles, the borderline bathrooms – it can be really terrible. But the real secret is that it can also be wonderful, nurturing, and so sweet.

Crazy as it sounds, I love those long days. I live for them. And I realized a while ago that my love of travel stemmed from one very simple practice. I strive to connect with the people around me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s extremely important to be careful and alert when you travel, but that doesn’t mean we have to shut everyone out. Whether I’m sitting at a hotel bar, standing by the baggage carousel, eating pizza at 2 am in the airport, riding on a tour bus, wandering a market, gritting my teeth on a bumpy bus, holding my nose through an iffy bathroom experience, standing in line with aching shoulders waiting to check my bag, or sniffling over who and what I’m leaving, I do my best to really see the people sharing space with me and reach out to them if I can. I’ve discovered that even the grouchiest looking fellow travelers are no match for a charming smile and sincere compliment. Without fail, I walk away from every single serving interaction with a smile on my face. It turns out that being nice to people – reaching out with an open hand to say, I see you friend, thanks for being here, it matters – is the best thing you can do for yourself. It makes you feel more human, more connected, more grateful, more aware…just happier. And when single serving friends turn into lasting ones who text you from all around the world giving music suggestions, sharing funny stories, inviting you to visit, and just checking in….well that’s probably the most rewarding, satisfying feeling I have ever experienced. All because I try to look up out of my bubble and really see the person standing next to me.

So here’s to all the people I connected with while traveling recently. Including (but certainly not limited to)…

Mrs. Worrywart and Mr. Ex-Marine on the flight from NYC to Dubai:  you were the sweetest couple I’ve ever met, and the way you treated each other helped me understand what I eventually want from a relationship.

My fellow Breakfast Club members: though it was annoying to have to finish our Starbucks so quickly, huddling together in the corner sharing stories before proceeding through security made the 2:30 am flight so much less jarring.

Frank. For being brave. Also Chris, Ada, and Joy. For making my one day off so lovely and full of laughter and for teaching me the language of Nigerian car horns – an invaluable skill to be sure.

All the seriously kick-ass filmmakers, photographers, and artists I met at the African International Film Festival in Calabar, Nigeria, especially Bobby, Domilolo, Chile, Dayo, Msuur, Olive, and Koko. You are inspirational, beautiful human beings who also really know how to party. You’ll never know how perfect your timing was.

Brandon from the hotel bar in Dubai: You made those five hours pass faster than I thought possible. For the White Russians, music suggestions, stories, laughs, moments of clarity, motivation to stay the course, and proof that people are wonderful more often than not, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’ll never forget you. Alles gute zum geburtstag, my friend.

And of course all the people I worked, lived, laughed, cried, sweated, itched, wondered, dreamed, and planned with while in Nigeria. Especially Onenu, Ochala, Fr. Peter, Sabastine, Daniel, Lawrence, Margaret, Fred, Genevieve, and Elizabeth.

You’ve made me better.

You’ve made me happier.

You’re are the real reason I travel.

I hope I see you again someday.

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the battle for kindness.

A few things have happened lately to reminded me of the importance of kindness. I’ve been the recipient of great generosity recently – in both small and large ways. And as moving as the grand gestures are (and as grateful as I am for them), the little things are what have provoked the biggest emotional response from me. It’s always been a bit confusing to me why doing something so small, however thoughtful, for someone else can be so important. In trying to unravel the mystery, I’ve discovered a few things, and I’ll try to share it with as much clarity as I can muster.

“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” -Mark Twain

Our lives are filled with big things. We’ve all got problems, worries, challenges, and priorities that can loom huge in our lives. It’s like the moment in a theater when someone passes close in front of a projector and blocks out the entire movie for a moment. Though that one person is much smaller than the screen, they come so close that their shadow blocks everything else out. Whatever beauty, excitement, love, or happiness might be taking place on screen, all we can see is a shadow. I think that’s how our lives are sometimes. Life is so full of beauty, complexity, and abundance, but that’s easy to forget when we’ve got a big problem that covers life in it’s shadow. I’m not saying these shadows are unique or even that we have to get rid of them. We all have our own shadows, some bigger than others, and it would be impossible to banish them completely. I don’t want a life without shadows. All I ask for is the ability to see around them. Doing little things for others, taking a few minutes to write someone a nice message, doing a small favor, smiling genuinely at someone you pass on the street, can really change someone’s day. I think these little gifts mean so much because they require us to focus our attention away from ourselves and the shadows we follow for a few moments. The require us to heft up the corners of those shadows, struggle under their weight, and glimpse, for once, the potential beauty, caring, and unity that waits for us in a life undarkened. We have to focus on the need of another instead of the needs of ourselves. When someone is able to do that for us, it’s wonderfully touching. It means that they put down their own cares for a moment and thought of us. It’s a beautiful feeling.

“Only the weak are cruel. Gentleness can only be expected from the strong.” -Leo Buscaglia

While putting your personal shadows aside for a moment to attend to the needs of the person in front of you might take a little extra emotional work, I think it’s worth it. Actually, I think it’s one of the greatest kept secrets in the world. It takes intentional effort to put your personal problems aside, but once you do, you’ll get the chance to be in on the secret. The secret is that once you’re finished being generous with your emotions and time, once you’ve parted from the other person and returned your attention to your shadows, you’ll find that they aren’t as dark as they were before you put them aside.

“A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives roses.” -Chinese proverb

If my travels have taught me anything, it’s that everyone carries their own cross. You never know what storm other people are going through, so it’s always in your best interest to be unnecessarily kind. If we could all realize that shadows are universal, then maybe we could all decide to put them aside for a while and allow ourselves to connect with each other at our most pure. We could give and give and give of ourselves to others without feeling like we wouldn’t have enough left to deal with our own troubles. I don’t believe that those who give the most are also those who receive the most. I truly believe that giving IS receiving. Somewhere along the way we got lost. We started believing that there was only so much time and love and joy in the world so we had to grab it quick for ourselves before it ran out instead of spreading it around. We started believing that our shadows were so huge and all-consuming that we couldn’t spare even a second to tend to the small, daily needs of others. We couldn’t be more wrong. Scarcity is something lazy people made up as an excuse not to listen with an open heart, give freely of your time, and make small efforts. The more you give, the more you have, not the other way around.

“Kindness is loving people more than they deserve.” -Joseph Joubert

Say you’re having a really crappy day. Maybe your boss yelled at you or you flunked an exam or you just stepped in a puddle and discovered your rain boot has a hole. You’re in a really terrible mood when you walk into a coffee shop to get a pick-me-up. Instead of glowering at the menu, being short with the barista, and shlumping over to the corner table to nurse your wounds, pay for the drink of the customer in line behind you. Once you start turning those little dark moments into opportunities to spread light, you’ll discover a well of optimism inside yourself that you never knew existed.

So let’s start a new trend, you and me. Be more kind than you have to. Smile more than is really normal. Give of yourself. Then give more. I could say you’d be doing the world a favor, and while that might be true, you’ll also be doing yourself a big favor.