In a world where online services fulfill most needs, self-checkout is being introduced in more and more stores, and airpods fill more ears each day, it has never been easier to avoid contact with people you don’t know. And yet, many studies (like this one) show that people are enduring unprecedented levels of loneliness and isolation. The increased time we spend in front of a screen is directly correlated with greater societal disconnection. We think it is worthwhile to ask: what do we lose when we close ourselves to interactions with people in our everyday lives?
Maybe that question is best answered by two stories from across the country. In this piece we highlight what we can gain– and the extraordinary value we deliver– when we embrace meaningful interactions with the folks we might otherwise pass by in silence.
Along the harbor in St. Petersburg, FL, 58-year-old Al Nixon has built a local reputation as “The Sunshine Mayor,” by sitting on a park bench and having conversations with strangers who pass by. Nixon spends two hours every morning, seven days a week, on his favorite bench, lending an ear and an open heart to anyone who might choose to engage with him. People often open up and ask him for advice. They unburden themselves of their worries. He listens and offers counsel where he can. “I was happy to listen,” Nixon said of his early interactions. “I wanted them to walk away knowing they didn’t have to feel alone.”
At this point Nixon has touched countless lives. Amazingly– and pivotally– Al Nixon may never have taken to starting these conversations with strangers, had he not himself been the recipient of a stranger’s seemingly random kindness. For years, Nixon would sit on the bench to watch the sunrise each morning, but speak to no one. One day, a woman walked up and told him, “Every morning when I see you sitting here, I know that everything is going to be okay.” The woman could have easily continued on her way without saying a word, but she took the time to let Nixon, a stranger, know he was seen and valued. Touched, Nixon decided to return that positivity to the world around him.
In Azle, Texas, A man named Will Norman began setting up a “listening tent” at an intersection, driven by the desire for connection he felt was lacking in his own life. “I just went through some hard stuff, a traumatic experience, and felt like there was no one there,” he told local Fox4 News. “And I thought maybe other people needed to talk, and they did. And so, I just listen and they just keep coming and keep coming.” His need to connect and to be heard is all too common. What is not common about Norman is that he reframed his own desire for connection– loneliness in the wake of a battle with cancer and a debilitating back injury– as an opportunity to fulfill the same need in others, and took action. When Norman began sitting out with a sign that said, “Need to talk?” People took him up on it almost immediately.
Nixon and Norman both describe the intense sense of purpose they get from giving strangers a platform to discuss their problems. This is only natural– they are providing a rare and precious thing, fulfilling an area of extraordinary vulnerability in people. Theirs is an empowering gratification that arises from doing something kind without expectation of receiving anything back. As a woman who had conversed with Nixon noted, “He listens without judgment and without any kind of return expected.” It is also important to remember that there are proven mental and physiological benefits of doing kind things.
When viewed together, these stories provide much more than a heartwarming portrait of human kindness. They force us to zoom out. To envision the ripple effect of these interactions and think of what can happen when our actions remind others of the value of open-hearted listening. Of the power of saying the positive thing, because you don’t know what might come of the boost it provides.
If that first passing stranger had not come up to Al Nixon and told him that his daily presence reassured her, he may never have felt that spark of purpose. He may never have become a sounding board for so many grateful people. How many people left conversations with Nixon or Norman inspired to pay the kindness forward to someone else?
We will never know. The downstream effects of the type of kindness Nixon and Norman demonstrate defy quantification. These stories remind us, however, that our power to make the world a warmer and less lonely place, is without limit.
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December 16, 2022 |
| Authors: Matthew Malgari, Nathan Przybylo, Dr. Sanjeev Bhojraj and John Durkin
December 16, 2022