Sunday Reflections, The Sunday Republican 10-30-2016, By Tracy O’Shaughnessy
For a number of years, a friend of mine walked her little white terrier through the narrow streets of her big city neighborhood. These strolls, she told me once, were less about the dog’s exercise than her own. The routine rambles were, in a sense, her baptism into a new day. She admired the thistles and the tender sprouts in spring; she recorded the curling crimson leaves in autumn. In the way we can know strangers without naming them, she became accustomed to the habitual crank of a neighbor’s car engine, the lurching growl of the local school bus, the occasional yank of the leash aroused by some dog neighbor’s inquisitiveness. She waved, she smiled. She lifted her coffee cup. Occasionally, she introduced the dog.
But she knew no one well, or intimately. She passed neighbors, commuters, strangers who looked at her as one might an other signpost, like a pharmacy or a mailman.
This summer, her little white dog was killed. It was hit on one of these routine walks, plunging my single friend into an abyss that was as unspeakable as it was unshared. Only she knew the dog. Only she loved it. Only she grieved it.
The day after it died, my friend got up, made her cup of coffee and headed out for her walk, alone. She grieved, I suppose, in that pre-dawn darkness, remembering the copse through which they strolled, the series of minor but memorable misadventures among the mud and the moss. The lonely ambles were difficult and isolating. But she kept walking.
Six months ago, my friend got a new dog. A puppy. It has bright brown eyes, a brindle beard and a black-tipped tail that doesn’t know whether to curl or straighten. Until she bought it, the puppy had never been collared or leashed. Walking it was a bit like dancing with someone who is tone-deaf.
But on a Sunday morning recently, reaching the crest of a rise, she came upon a stranger waving at her with big, eager arcs of his arms. “Hey,” he said, “Hey, You got another dog!”
My friend braced herslef for the smiling stranger lumbering toward her. “You got another dog.”he said. “I’m so glad. You looked so lonely out there without one.” And then he hugged her. And walked away.
For the rest of the day, my friend said, her mood brightened. Her steps lightened. She felt a sense of serenity and contentment that she could only attribute to that sudden, dramatic encounter. I was not the possibility of romance. It was not even, she told me, an invitation to friendship. It was that she was noticed. She hadn’t been as lonely as she imagined.
An increasing body of research hs found that small talk-the little chit chat we engage in at the grocery store or in line at the DMV-has surprising effects on well-being. Studies have shown that those asked to track their social interactions daily reported a greater sense of belonging and happiness when they had more interaction with acquaintances.
“Talking with a stranger may not offer the same benefits as talking with a close friend, but we underestimate its importance to us.” Nicholas Epley, a University of Chicago professor of behavioral science, told the Wall Street Journal. He and his colleagues looked at 118 commuters at a railway station near Chicago and asked each to initiate a conversation on the train, stay silent or do whatever they normally do on their commute. Researchers found that those tasked with engaging in conversations with strangers reported “significantly more positive” and “no less productive” commutes than those who rode in solitude.
I have a friend who refuses to check her groceries ut at one of the proliferating self-checkout stations at the grocery store. “Why should I constrict my human interaction?” she said. “That may be the only conversation that clerk has all day.”
In London this autumn, a 42 year old from Colorado began handing out pins that read “Tube Chat?” as a way to encourage conversation among commuters. Londoners were hardly welcoming. “Panic Across London as People On Tubes are Actually Asked to Talk” a headline in one newspaper read.
As an introvert myself, I understand the lack of enthusiasm. But I also understand our intinsic need to be noticed, heard and considered part of an interconnected community. It’s why I go to the gym rather than work out in my basement.
In the weeks since her puppy has learned to walk on a leash, my friend has encountered a few more sch bystanders who have noticed the new dog with eagerness. None have asked for coffee, no one has suggested dinner. But all have reminded my friend that the loneliness we perceive is often an illusion and that our presence is more integral to the small, anonymous orbit we inhabit than we imagine it to be.
Tracey O’Shaughnessy writes Sunday Reflections. Contact her at Tosh@rep-am.com