Of Connections and Communities
The great thing about being an American Jew—apart from knishes, blintzes, and an ancestral connection to Bob Dylan and the Three Stooges—is that we get two New Years, and an opportunity, therefore, to make two sets of resolutions. On January 1, 2021, I probably resolved to be a better person; having failed at that, I had a second chance when Yom Kippur rolled around in September. At that point, I got more specific. I had often teased my girlfriend, Naomi, about her propensity for “talking to strangers.” I tend not to speak to people I don’t know, and I don’t speak very much to those I do know, either. But I’d read an article suggesting that talking to strangers could have positive effects on the people conversing, which led me to the sort-of-Buddhist idea that the ripple effects of such engagements could uplift all of society. And society being such an immense disappointment the last few years—not to mention the pandemic that has caused me to spend many more hours alone than even a loner such as I find desirable—I decided perhaps it was time to share my wonderfulness with unsuspecting others.
I wasn’t going to change my personality entirely; I believe in taking small steps and seeing where they lead. At first, I would simply say hello to people I passed on the sidewalk, or with whom I was standing in line at the supermarket. Then I got more daring, making a comment to someone seated nearby in a restaurant who’d ordered the same thing I’d just enjoyed or chatting up a fellow next to me at a bar. Not long ago, Naomi and I were leaving a concert (Bob Dylan, in fact), and complete strangers sharing the sidewalk with us wanted to know our opinion on the show because they had split opinions on it. Rather than grumble at the nosy people breaking into the glow of my post-concert euphoria, I took their opening gambit and eagerly responded with my own opinions; then I asked the inquirers to make their own cases. When we reached our respective points of departure, we said goodbye; on the drive home I thought how that short social moment had been both useful and interesting to me. I love talking about music, and Dylan is an endlessly fascinating topic of discussion, but it wouldn’t previously have been something I would do with people I didn’t know.
Other than the mild self-satisfaction I’ve felt over the years when holding the door for someone I didn’t know, or helping shorter people in the grocery store by reaching something for them on a high shelf, I hadn’t yet perceived any returns on my investment in talking to strangers until that night after the Dylan concert. Not that this is all about what I get out of it, but getting a different perspective on a topic I’m interested in is always a good thing, and it wouldn’t have happened had I not changed my stance on connecting with other people. Furthermore, now that I talk to people more (some people, anyway; it’s not like I’m a boundary-less lunatic who has something to say to every member of humanity), I think I now come across as a nicer person, and maybe I am. I mean, not Ted Lasso nice, but nicer than I was.
Another thing that Naomi has always modeled and inspired me to do is to join and be active in communities. By community, I don’t just mean the neighborhood in which I live—I mean the groups of individuals with whom I share a meaningful affinity of some sort. My communities include my family, of course; my friends, both the old and close ones, and those who entered and have enhanced my life in recent years; my Tahiti Night crew of high school regulars; my Movie Night mancave buddies; my work colleagues; the temple I recently joined, and more specifically those who attend the weekly Torah Class I frequent; the local writer’s group I belong to; the author’s group I am a member of; the friends with whom I play music; and the fledgling foundation I can’t really speak about yet of which I will be a board member. Many of these communities I entered or formed in just the last few years. Participation in these communities makes me a busier and, I think, more interesting person—and also a more connected one. After all, communities are nothing if not social structures.
Importantly, I’ve been driven to not be a passive member of these communities but rather an active and valuable contributor. I willingly and enthusiastically share my talents, my interests, my thoughts, and my fellowship—and with gratitude I acknowledge that they are more often than not recognized and appreciated by others. In fact, the more I put into a group, the more I get out of it. It makes me realize how much I missed out on before I resolved to stop teasing Naomi and follow her lead instead.
As we approach January 1, 2022, I have yet another opportunity to make a New Year’s resolution. This time it will be very easy: Just keep doing what I’m doing. So far, it’s been working out great for me. And if I happen to see you in line with me at the supermarket, I’ll be happy to tell you all about it, whether I know you or not.