On this foggy morning, I rose at an ungodly hour to catch a flight. The dense marine layer made the tram, which shuttled us between the terminal and the waiting jet, seem almost cozy, snug. We’re generally an introverted bunch here in Seattle and as winter closes in grey and chilly, we retreat into our steamy coffee cups and Patagonia hoods. But on this tram so early in the morning, strangers chatted. Eyes met, smiles transformed a dozen faces with cheer.
There are precious few places left where this kind of magic happens among people who do not choose each other. These days, we are masters at curating our own spaces, sticking to familiar places and people. We keep within the circles we prescribe for ourselves: like-minded, like-educated, socio-economically similar. We choose the messages we hear and we pay for the best experiences we can afford. I realize even the grocery stores I frequent are filled with people who at least approximate “my” people. But recently I’ve begun to wonder about the hidden costs of these “safe” choices. Are we stunting our spirit’s growth in ways we don’t fully appreciate, missing opportunities for true connection of which we’re largely unaware?
Aboard the flight, the woman next to me in seat 32A is incredibly chatty, and a bit sporadic. She is not the person I would choose to sit with for a four hour flight. She has pulled out her phone and shown me photos of who-knows-what. And I’ve nodded politely, wanting to slip on my Air Pods. But as the plane rises and the millions-year-old miracle of Mount Rainier looms huge and snowy on the horizon; as flat-topped Mount Saint Helens, Mount Baker, and Mount Olympus drift into view, we murmur together with awe. Unexpected warmth crops up within me as I sit with this fellow human in witness of the majesty beyond the window. Honestly, what I feel is joy.
“Joy is good cheer. . .joy and curiosity are the same thing. Joy is always a surprise, and often a decision. Joy is portable. Joy is a habit, and these days, it can be a radical act,” writes Anne Lamott in her book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope.
It’s this radical act aspect of joy I’m interested in. Because in our highly curated world, stepping outside our patterns and circles is no easy task. Of course I can find quiet joy with my fellow book members who quote T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. That’s almost a given. But can I stretch myself to find real connection in unexpected places? The jolt of joy, the surprise animation of an unlooked-for interaction, is perhaps more likely to open a new door to discovery, to pierce my patterned thinking, than when I’m interacting with those who think and sound like me. I’ve found this recently through a great conversation with an Uber driver, as I helped a mother and son load an impossibly heavy piece of furniture into their car, and today, with the woman in 32A. But the examples of this type of encounter are for me, I’m truly sad to admit, few and far between in the busy, rather contained life I lead. I wonder how many more of these opportunities I have missed?
As we become more polarized and suspicious of one another, my longing to encounter grows stronger. I don’t want to be satisfied with “my people” who are in “my corner.” I want something much wilder and uncontained. I want joy. Joy moves through porous places, erasing boundaries and protections. It is indeed at once a decision, a surprise, and increasingly, I hope, a habit.
P.S. For a song that strikes this same theme of finding the joy of human connection in unexpected places, check out this songby the Innocence Mission.
P.S.S. We’d love it if you would post your comments here! And for those of you who live close by, I wrote this post a few foggy mornings ago–I am indeed back in Washington and it is still foggy!