On a random morning this past August, I woke up to discover that I was out of almond milk. It’s a crucial component in my coffee ritual, so I ambled sleepily to the nearest grocery store for a new carton. My hair was still unbrushed, and there was nothing in my pockets but my phone and a $5 bill.
It was around 7am. Rose gold sunlight dripped from Brooklyn’s brick buildings to otherwise untouched sidewalks. Quiet cars hummed by, en route to work, and birds chirped in looped flight between rooftops.
As I approached the senior center a few blocks from my apartment, I heard a soft song seeping through its shut windows: the chorus of “happy birthday.” The strangers’ voices beamed in gentle effervescence through the slits in the blinds as I stopped in my tracks. I couldn’t see their faces, but I imagined a gray-haired group of at least five people. I wondered whether there was cake. I pictured candles stuck in sloppy stacks of pancakes or waffles, with tiny flames flickering in an imitation of the waking sun.
It was a simple moment that seemed to change everything, staining my mood with its sweetness. It shook me out of my own head, which had begun buzzing with plans and to-do lists and self-focused weekday worries. It reminded me that I am not the center of the universe; that my concerns are mere specks in a world rippling with rich emotions and ever-humming human connections.
Just as the song ended with a rush of claps and scattered bursts of “yay,” I captured a quick video of the scene to sew it into my memory. My hand wobbled, and there was nothing to see, anyway. The significance was only the sound — the resonating warmth of the song whose evanescence somehow made it more poignant and precious.
As the international affairs of the past several weeks continue to unravel, being human feels harder than usual. Our culture’s communal guise of blissful denial seems suddenly riddled with corruption, cruelty, and fear. Across modern media from television to Twitter, the news plasters decadent displays of distressing disarray that are almost inescapable. My Facebook feed reeks of mass cultural confusion, boiling and steaming like a nauseating soup of disgruntled opinions stirred with superficial frivolities.
One second, we’re mourning the deaths of innocent civilians to tragic acts of terrorism; the next, we’re arguing over political debacles we’re unequipped to understand; and the next, we’re mooning over images of cutesy pumpkin-spiced donuts or gushing about Kendall Jenner’s new bangs.
The chaos of contradiction makes my gut churn, but I keep sneaking peeks, scrolling through social media on my phone and skimming clickbait-driven online articles, like I’m trying to feed some insatiable hunger for comfort and truth.
Modern media are designed to be addictive, and we all have our own destructive consumption habits. We read the news over breakfast and wind up swallowing fear with our cereal; we butter our toast in broadcasted bias and bitterness, brows furrowed. We check Facebook on our phones before going to sleep, and we bring controversy and contempt to bed; or we scroll through Instagram before we turn out the light and drag other people’s deluded dreams into our own.
Instead of an apple a day, we gobble up our Apples constantly: iPhones, iPads, iMacs, byte after byte after byte. We fill up on snackable content. We spoil our intellectual appetites with over-processed junk, or we speed-swallow sour stories without taking time to chew.
And then we wonder why we feel emotionally and spiritually starved.
Last Saturday, I went for morning coffee at the familiar cafe that I often visit on weekends. The news of the Paris attacks had just broken the night before, and I’d spent too much of the morning poring over my laptop, reading various reactions and interpretations of the tragedy, feeling increasingly sickened until I finally stood, shut the computer, and left my apartment.
The cafe’s ambiance was unusually uneasy. Nobody could help but talk about what had happened, and yet, nobody quite knew what to say, besides “It’s terrible” and “I know.” Others sliced into avocado toast while scrolling through Instagram or slurped cappuccinos while recounting friendly gossip, ignoring political subjects altogether, which seemed strange, too.
It was warm enough to sit outside, and so I did. With my legs bent up underneath me on the bench and my notebook in my lap, I struggled to scribble my thoughts into coherence.
“Let’s be heart hunters today,” said a sudden giddy voice, emerging from the cafe door. I turned to look. The boy who spoke was maybe five or six, tugging gently at his mother’s shirt as she sipped her latte from its paper to-go cup. “Let’s look for hearts everywhere we walk.”
“Okay,” she said, indulging him. “Do you see any here?”
He jetted towards a pair of bikes locked to a pole on the sidewalk, pointing to the gap in between their wheels. “Right here!” he squealed, outlining an invisible shape in the air that didn’t much resemble a heart. “See?”
It was the simplest, sweetest thing. It was a spark of unadulterated goodness; an unedited and entirely authentic interaction; an evanescent moment with enduring warmth. It didn’t negate the horrific state of international affairs, but it soothed my nerves, to witness the way that human tenderness still flickers in the face of destruction and despair.
“Remember,” he said as they walked away. “We’re heart hunters. Don’t forget.” He reached up to hold his mother’s hand.
Of course, in many ways, modern media and technology do knit us all closer together.
When I posted my Instagram video of the birthday song, I quickly got a comment from a friend who lives in California. He and I have never met and have only seen one another’s faces in a few photographs. But through a series of digital conversations, we have repeatedly experienced each other’s invisible warmth.
As it turned out, that day happened to his birthday. “I’m going to go ahead and count those birthday wishes as extending to the west coast as well,” he wrote. “Imagine if you could explain to all those fine people…how far their birthday wishes traveled, and how they affected more than their intended target!”
And in the case of recent world affairs, there is some good news that bubbles up to the surface, thanks especially to its easy online shareability. There are some uplifting stories and sage perspectives. There are well-written articles and touching TV clips that boost my faith in humankind’s capacity to live peacefully among one another.
We just have to be careful to distinguish the real-time interactions from the exchanges that happen in that ad-funded, click-driven media space.
A Facebook profile picture with a French flag filter might be a symbolic representation of compassion and unity, but it is just that — a symbolic representation. Even if it comes from the heart, its emotion is numbed and muffled through the screen.
An opinionated Tweet, however wise or well-meaning, is not a full conversation. It is a way of talking out at people, not talking with them in vulnerable nuance. The mere act of its published presentation adds a glazed filter to its original thought.
We relegate so many sensitive dialogues to the online universe, where our senses are blunted — we can’t hear each other’s voices, feel each other breathing, or link eyes. And so we struggle to get a handle on those sensitive subjects in person. We don’t know what to say out loud besides “It’s terrible” and “I know.” We choose instead to recount friendly gossip, dodging the touchy topics altogether except behind the clicks of keyboards.
Intimate issues warrant intimacy. It’s the intimate discussions that help us sort out the truth. It’s the intimate moments — the celebratory rituals, the hands held, the shared joys — that bolster belonging and bring lasting comfort.
To connect, we have to disconnect. We have to put away our computers and phones. We have to unplug our earbuds. We have to shut down the broadcasted noise to open up our ears, eyes, and minds. We have to stop scouring the mass-distributed conversations for truth and consolation and explanations of what it means to be human, and instead seek answers in the tiny flickers of humanity that happen in the here and now.
We all have to be heart hunters, too.
When I left that cafe on Saturday afternoon, I headed to the subway. As I came up the stairs onto the platform, I heard a familiar twinkle of a mystical guitar song.
I don’t know his name, but I see this musician performing frequently at this particular station. He’s perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties, dreadlocked, exuding easy peace while plucking delicately at the strings and nodding his head from side to side.
But on this particular day, in a small clearing on the platform, I found a young girl dancing to his melody. She spun her arms overhead in her puffy pink coat, stood on tiptoes in her fleece-lined fuchsia boots, and wove dizzy pirouettes as a quiet crowd of strangers watched and she continued on, unabashed, seeming not to notice that anyone was looking. The guitarist tapped his foot with her, and they caught eyes occasionally, without exchanging even one word.
The song ended as the subway approached. She curtsied, and he clapped, as did the rest of us, before all but the musician stepped onto the train. No one said anything, because words were unnecessary. The vivid scene spoke for itself.
That’s what human connection is supposed to feel like. A dance between two strangers with a twenty-year age gap. Heart-hunting between mother and son. Birthday songs at sunrise, shared between elderly friends.
Warm. Gentle. Ephemeral. Simple, but deeply nourishing.
P.S. Yes, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: you’re reading this via phone or computer, aren’t you? Now that you’re done, I dare you to leave your devices behind and take a walk. Go heart hunting. Connect with a stranger. I hope you stumble on unexpected human sweetness, just like I did.