THE GREAT DIVIDE
Every generation chafes a bit at the introduction of some new ideas and ways of doing things. I can only imagine the angst over sliced bread or motor vehicles. Some changes have been welcomed ones, like electricity, seat belts, refrigerators, and on line bill paying, to name a few, as they truly made life easier or safer. The internet and smart phones have opened up a whole new world of connectivity and communication. But while many of us eventually embrace and utilize the “new” (as I have obviously embraced the internet), we may still have problems with changes that seem to move us further and further away from face-to-face human contact.
We are now in a period where we use the word “friend” to refer to people with whom we have even the remotest or fleeting relationship. We may have only “met” them on-line or once years ago, yet we label them with a word that denotes a familiarity that does not exist. But the truth is, we are increasingly operating on our own, without the joys of the handshaking, warm hug, flesh and blood interaction.
Recently, I was shopping in a grocery store in the southern U.S. When the clerk reached for my cart and began to take out the groceries, for a moment, I did not know what to do. In a world of self-check-out and self-check-in, there are fewer and fewer people to ask questions of, to converse with, to offer or receive a smile. Customer service used to be delivered, now it is something you have to seek and find, and only if you can’t “do it yourself.” While employers rejoice in their ability to reduce staff and increase their profit margins, some of us long to have the chance to get some help every now and then and leave feeling good about the human experience.
With the advent of “smart meters”, we have lost the monthly wave to the meter reader. With the increase in computer usage, we have lost the pleasant relationships we may have had with the local grocer and bookseller, and we are about to lose the daily exchange of pleasantries with our mail carrier.
I worked in Downtown Oakland for many years and developed wonderful relationships with shopkeepers, florists, store clerks and the like. Those contacts sometimes only consisted of a wave from the window as I passed by, but they always made me feel more alive and part of the great human fabric. Over the years I received so much from those encounters. I got my shoes repaired by “Big Willie” while he played the blues for me and we sang at the top of our lungs. I received a beautiful blue rose from a florist who thought that it would look good with the outfit I wore that day. I sipped Kenya AA at a coffee shop and helped the owner pick out new tiles for her bathroom. To this day, when I walk into a popular Oakland City Center eatery, I am greeted with a big hello from one of the long time employees. And at another, the owner lets me sit at a table in the kitchen to eat while we chat. You don’t get that kind of interaction on line or in a text or on a reader or on an “app.” While these things are useful, none of them is going to ring your doorbell with a surprise box of those decadent Godiva cupcakes (hint hint), or bring you soup and talk to you when you are not feeling well.
It’s as though we are physically being pulled away from each other in the name of easy and fast and more and now and me. It means that we will have to be more diligent about maintaining and nourishing our encounters and real friendships. It means that we as we use the current and future technology to enhance our lives, we can never let the “virtual” substitute or separate us from the “real.”
I am convinced that people will always need people, and islands of real interaction will always exist. I have faith that we will always be wired to have the ability and desire to leap over the chasm so we can still look into each other’s eyes.
We will surely face a lonely and empty existence if we let the great divide get so wide that it keeps us apart.
Sheryl J. Bize Boutte