The horrible news about another mad person shooting innocent people, this time in the supposed sanctity of a church, shakes one to the core and forces us to think through our own daily travels and interactions. Sit in church next Sunday and look at the hundreds assembled. Has it ever entered your mind that one might rise and open fire? We encounter people every day in everything we do, making connections with some that last. With some they just pass by and our contact is barely noticed.
Life is filled with connections. We live every day by perusing ourselves through a myriad of connections, even beginning each day driving to work on jammed roads, filled with cars piloted by people making their own connections. Life is filled with trust as we move about in our encounters with others.
Think about the lives we closely touch each day and also the lives we barely brush up against in our own little part of the world. We encounter hundreds daily and if one were to construct a grid, the numbers of those we touch who also touch others would multiply exponentially. We do this, often with little thought, and more often than not it is our essential character that we transmit to those around us, leaving an impression that can range from indelible to one barely noticed. Yet, we do not expect danger to be lurking in our daily activities and certainly not in church.
Stop on the way home at the grocery store and take the time to place your eyes upon every shopper you pass in the aisles. Do they notice you? Do you say hello when your eyes meet or do you quickly avert your gaze? Do you stop to help someone take that item from the top shelf because you are much taller and they are standing there on the tippy toes still unable to grab that jar?
Those are things I thought about this past week as I made new connections and reinforced old ones in the halls of Congress in Washington D.C. If you have ever visited our nation’s capital you’s seen how the halls of the various office buildings resemble videos of intersecting roads in a busy Asian city: hard to clearly determine where everyone is headed but they’re all moving determinably to a known destination. Long lines form outside of committee meeting rooms, usually with interns or junior staffers waiting patiently for the doors to open so they can “save” seats for more senior staff or visitors who’ve made more connections than the intern along the way.
D.C. is an amazing place, filled with people who have spent a lifetime making connections; using those same connections to advance their ideas or to influence the ideas of others. Clearly, though, it’s the power of ideas and not the barrel of a gun that makes a difference there.
One quickly learns in D.C. that very few people are actually “from” D.C. as most inhabitants are temporary, unless they’re members of Congress or very senior staff. They have filled their dance cards with years of connections and thus are very capable of truly influencing what gets done, who gets to do it, and how the issues of the day get to be discussed, dissected and disbursed. They cause all the others to scurry about moving from one connecting place to another. The dance of interaction freely occurs with no supposition that any visitor is there to cause harm. Of course, that’s more easily done because we all have to go through metal detectors to visit!
When one visits a congressional office you are treated very politely. The young staff greeting you are not concerned with your expansive lists of connections, and there’s an expectation of civility from the hosts and the guests. They work hard to make you feel welcome, are constantly apologizing for their member being in committee or on the floor doing votes, and if you are from Florida they offer you “Fresh from Florida Orange Juice” while you sit and wait.
Some might make fun of these young staff members while they walk the halls with an air of importance, and they certainly all dress way above their pay grade. I find it hard to fault any of them when I visit, though. They are earnest, hardworking, low-paid but usually highly educated, and almost universally sincere.
Over the years I have visited countless congressional offices, many times meeting with the members, but often just spending time with staff. I’ve never had a bad experience in either case. When I bring ideas or points of view on issues affecting Florida or even specifically higher education or international affairs, my ideas are warmly received, discussed and thoughtfully challenged or absorbed. With members and staff both I always leave thinking that my one voice was heard. However I also leave reminding myself that life is filled with connections, so maybe at that moment my connection mattered or maybe the next visitor had an equally valid, or perhaps more persuasive point of view.
Perhaps it is an overused adage from Winston Churchill, but it still rings true. Democracy is not perfect but it does beat every other form of government tried so far. Spending time in D.C. also reminds me of Benjamin Franklin’s words advising that we have a republic, if we can keep it. Both men left a legacy we should learn and heed.
Both lived in very different times than ours. Yes, our lives are filled with far more connections than they ever dreamed of making and perhaps we face perils they also could not have envisioned. Today we make new connections every hour, and through the Internet we can reach out and touch someone any time we choose. We have tools beyond the imaginations of those who came before us. We have all of the information known to us right at a keyboard. We can display our ethos, our pathos and our logos without constraint, although perhaps too often we do so without proper inhibition.
However, connections made via such tools, aren’t quite as fulfilling as the ones we make face to face, with new friends and old. We all too often forget how bright a connection can be and so we fail to strengthen the line between us and others. The line between two points is not always a bright one and I know when the connection fails it can often be my fault.
So I think today I’ll send some hand-written notes to those young, earnest staff members who so welcomed me when I visited. I wonder how many of them think meeting me established a new connection, maybe made a new friend or just found someone they could ask a needed question of, hoping to get an earnest and honest answer.
The quality of the life we live is in part determined by the steps we take and the impressions we leave with the connections we make.
Ed H. Moore resides in Tallahassee where he is perpetually awaiting a rebirth of wonder. Column courtesy of Context Florida.