Years ago, there was a public service announcement featuring basketball star, Isaiah Thomas, reminding its young citizens of Oakland County to “look up” and be aware of power lines when playing outside. As I visited various regions of Senegal recently, I was reminded of this same lesson, to look up, but for very different reasons.
Living in a first world country (who decides that, really?) has afforded me with lots of comforts, technology being one of them. Alexa will give me the news, read me a story, give me the weather, play me a song, and even tell me a joke if I request it. More and more my smartphone is glued to my hand and my screen time increases with each passing week. I look down…a lot. And as someone who professes to not miss her life, I have to confess that maybe I have been, to some extent. Let me explain what I mean.
In Senegal, both in Dakar and Thiès, there was so much to see and do. As a visitor to the country, I wanted to make sure that I saw everything; I didn’t want to miss out on anything. I looked out of the window and was on high alert for new and interesting people, events, buildings, monuments – whatever, it didn’t matter. While I was on lookout for things, what I found was something intangible. I found a deeper connection to the people I was with and the places I had traveled to, all because I looked up. I was present for each and every encounter.
I’ll admit, that’s not a groundbreaking revelation and I’m almost certain that people have been saying that for decades. But it’s like when your parents tell you something versus you experiencing it. Sometimes you just need to see it and feel it to believe it for yourself. I could feel the difference there, but what did that mean for me back home?
This morning I decided to stop and get a grande soy hot chocolate with extra chocolate on my way to work. I was in great spirits and felt like I was wearing a smile. I shared that smile with everyone that met my eye. “Good morning, how are you?” was sometimes met with a smile and a greeting in return or even a quizzical look. An elderly women that I spoke to happen to be reading a book that I’d picked up in my living room just this morning. “I have that same book!” I exclaimed. She beamed and immediately we engaged in conversation. It wasn’t much, it didn’t take much, and it didn’t cost a thing except a few minutes of my time. But wasn’t it worth it? It absolutely was, and I would have missed it all if I hadn’t taken the time to look up.
I realized, as I got in my car and went off to work, that it’s not about obligation or status when I speak to people, or even a game of chicken – holding out to see who, if anyone, will greet the other first. It’s about genuine human connection. The connection that I felt to the morning coffee goers, the connection that I feel to teachers and students at my school, and my neighbors, and the people at the grocery store or anywhere else I go, are the sparks of energy that make my life interesting and bright and colorful. We need each other. Well, I need you. And not in the needy, I can’t survive without you, sing sad songs on rainy Saturdays kind of way. I need you in the very basic, want to make sure we’re all alright and thriving not just surviving kind of way. I like it when we’re smiling. I love it when we’re laughing, and most days I really enjoy connecting with people. I’ll admit, sometimes the world feels too people-y, but maybe what I’m feeling is the energy.
Like I said, the realization to look up and be present is not new or earth shattering, but my trip to Senegal was a personal revelation and confirmation. It’s when I unplug and step away from the screen that I experience the unfiltered beauty and wonder in the world. They say that old habits die hard, but I will be working very hard to put my phone down, step away from the screens, and see life up close and personal. I’m making a commitment to look up, notice, engage, and enjoy. #DontMissYourLife