Ways of seeing: We gain by tearing down technology’s walls

On the airplane ride home from my five-month exchange in Australia, I cried for at least three of the fifteen hours. Part of it was relief that I had made it through my first independent journey, part of it was joy because my heart was so full of memories and new perspectives, and part of it was absolute heartbreak because I was going to miss all of the beautiful friends I had made.
I’ve never been one to cry so much, but since I was stuck in the middle seat of a cramped airplane, there was no other way to let out my emotion. So I sat there, scrawny seventeen year old me, sobbing, while the adults on either side of me stared down into their phones.
I’m sure they were uncomfortable, these two people sharing a row with me, but it didn’t show. The pale light of their cellphones glittered off my wet cheeks as we sat there in near silence, interrupted only by my sniffing. I didn’t know those people’s stories, they could have been in crises of their own, but I can tell you that if someone next to me was sobbing, I would ask if they were alright.
It’s crazy, how two people sharing an armrest can so pointedly ignore one another, but cellphones make it so easy. Technology is supposed to foster communication between people, but more and more, I see it driving us apart. They have become an excuse, something to focus on so that we can escape situations in which we don’t know how to interact with each other. It’s a crutch that our society leans on, not knowing it is really the injury, keeping us from knowing each other.
I met an old man once, in a big park by a butterfly garden. I was walking a footpath which passed by the bench he was sitting on, playing his guitar. The music was beautiful, so I gave him a small smile as I approached, in appreciation of the music. In the moment which we made eye contact, I read his old lined expression and saw that he looked kind.
“Beautiful evening, eh?” he said, smiling back at me, playing quieter.
“It is,” I nodded.
He asked if I’d like to sit, and moved over on the bench. He told me that his name was Pacho, he liked to play Bach, and that he was originally from Peru. We talked about music, about South America and North America, and he played more on his guitar.
As he hummed and played, a man and a young boy walked down the footpath towards us, and as they approached we were surprised to see a python draped around the man’s neck and shoulders.
They saw us looking intrigued, and the man asked if we’d like to hold the snake. Pacho was delighted, and there we sat, a grandfatherly musician, a father and son, a mid-sized python, and me. I felt so lucky to have stumbled across such a moment, in a park in suburban Pennsylvania. If I had been wearing headphones, I would never have heard his music, and if I had kept my eyes down and walked by, I never would have ended up petting a python.
Moments like those are precious, and they are becoming more and more rare. Of course, we cannot stop and talk to every person we pass on the street, and not every person will be as kind and interesting as Pacho.
But they might be, and if there is ever time to take that chance, it should be taken. By ignoring each other we only lose. We miss out on opportunities to meet people with different perspectives and insights, whose words and actions can positively impact and change us. We are cheating ourselves of warmth and friendship.
I heard a saying once, that goes “Hate generalizes, love specifies.” When we block out strangers, they remain other to us, and because we don’t know them, it is easy to fear, dislike, or judge them. But when we put down our cellphones and awkwardly break the first walls of silence, the chances are we will feel happier, more connected, and more understanding of other humans than before.
I was crying on the airplane home from Australia because of how much I loved the friends I made there — but it wasn’t like that from the start. When I moved to Australia, I knew no one. Every face was unfamiliar, each person was a stranger. Constantly putting myself out there to meet and talk to them was tiring and scary sometimes. But what I learned in the end was by taking down technological walls and talking to people, we only have something to gain.
Leeya Tudek is a 17-year-old student from South Lincoln. She enjoys painting, writing, and being outdoors, and has recently returned from studying abroad in Australia.

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