The Best Advice So Far: walls — 1950s subway riders crowded and ignoring one another

Today, I saw a snail
on the sidewalk in front of our house.
And I thought, I too am like that snail.
I build a defensive wall around myself, a “shell” if you will.
But my shell isn’t made out of a hard, protective substance.
Mine is made out of tin foil and paper bags.

~Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy, SNL

Growing up with three siblings, all close in age, there were frequent and often ongoing sibling rivalries. As such, we learned tricks for being in close proximity while simultaneously erasing the offending party or parties from existence. And mind you, we didn’t have customized media to aid us. We had to be creative when it came to ignoring one another:

Holding an issue of TV Guide up to one side of our face like a blinder on a horse while watching television, so as to block out the person sitting beside us on the couch.

Placing three cereal boxes in half-hexagonal formation at breakfast time, to build a fortress around ourselves that would hide us from the enemy who sat kitty-corner from us at the table, arms-length away.

Car trips were the one time when shielding ourselves became almost impossible, especially as we got older and our bodies grew.

First, with four of us, your status during the trip was immediately determined by which seat you wound up managing to get for yourself. It was a fight to the death for a window seat. But eventually, a tight-lipped parent eventually threatened us with “that look” that meant just get in the car already (somehow oblivious to the obvious stakes); and whoever wound up getting the windows would turn and flash a smugly superior grin at whomever wound up squished into the middle two spaces, legs cramped by “the hump.”

My older brother would often add to this one of two peculiar gestures:

1. pinching his index finger and thumb together slowly in your face, as if squishing a grape, while derisively saying “smaaaallllll.” (Alternatively, he simply hissed: tssssssssss.)

2. touching his thumb to the fingertips of the remaining fingers and then exploding it suddenly outward in your direction while making an inward-sucking popping noise like opening a can of Pringles.

To this day, I haven’t quite figured out where he got those from; and I’ve never seen them used by anyone else in the world but him. But they served his purpose: to inciting humiliation, rage … or both.

Now the unspoken rule was that you should stare straight ahead, seething inwardly while doing your level best not to make eye contact with either of the beings pressing in on your ribs.

Of course on any ride, no matter the duration, someone would break formation with the usual finger-in-your-face accompanied by a vehemently whispered, “I’m not touching you … I’m not touching you ….”

But what was really annoying were the times the aforementioned older brother would force his legs apart slowly, pushing his knee against your knee with all his strength, lips between his teeth as if he were ready at any moment to blurt “Mother $#&*@!” You see, it wasn’t enough to have gotten the window seat. He also felt it necessary to assert his perceived dominance through having the most space. (Another unspoken rule: having your legs open was cool, while having your legs squished together meant you were lame.)

Then there was the tactic where, to further demonstrate both his notion of superiority and contempt for your existence, he would burp into his closed mouth, cheeks suddenly flaring like a pufferfish, and then crank his lips in your direction and slowly blow the rancid breath at you. (This was most effective after he’d eaten SpaghettiOs or canned ravioli.)

John Donne penned, “No man is an island.” But we weren’t men. We were kids. And so we frequently did our best to isolate ourselves from the others in our small world called “home” and live as though each of us were an only child.

I know: what rotten kids we were, right?

But isn’t that more or less the same mentality we can so easily slip into as we go about our days: pretending the other human beings all around us — the other very real people with whom we share this “home” called Earth — aren’t really there at all?

Sure, maybe we’ve gotten more sophisticated with it. We’ve traded our cereal-box walls for pulled-up hoodies, headphones and mobile phones. And magazine blinders have been replaced with … well, come to think of it, maybe those haven’t lost any popularity.

When we can’t ignore, we push our knees against the others around us, vying to enlarge our own sense of “me space.”

We bristle that we should have to wait in line (imagine!) behind all of those other bodies preventing us from getting what we want when we want it. Is that really so much to ask? Then, finding that teeth-clucking, sighing and ostentatious body shifting isn’t proving effective at moving things along, we exit in a loud huff, off to find somewhere that understands just how important we really are.

We edge our front bumper dangerously close to the one in front of ours, smirking (whether outwardly or inwardly) as we prove our status, making darned sure that the driver trying to exit the parking lot on our right won’t be taking our place.  I mean, who does she think she is anyway? Is it my problem that traffic’s bad? Let her try with the bozo behind me.

Or we dominate conversation as if we were a ticketed event, uncomfortable when a voice other than our own cuts into our stage time.

OK, so maybe you’re not quite that obvious about it.

But let me ask you:

Does the bottled water you just picked up at the convenience store feel more important to you than the cashier who rung you up? (What if you took the extra moment to read his name tag and greet him by name?)

Are you choosing the book you’re reading or the work you brought home over your daughter’s pleas for you to play a game with her? (How might you be changing your relationship in the long run based on either of those choices?)

Are you holding up your invisible blinders while you ride the train, rather than perhaps introducing yourself to the older woman sitting beside you? (What might you learn from someone with her life experience if you chose that activity over your e-book this time?)

The thing about walls is that they block us in as much as they block anyone else out.

Walls obscure our view, replacing the color and beauty of the larger landscape with the same predictable shades of gray, day after day.

Walls make us feel safe — but they also keep us living small.

The Best Advice So Far: Walls make us feel safe — but they also keep us living small.

It’s easy when we read things like this — in a book, a blog or perhaps on a social-media meme — to nod our agreement. Yes, the world would be a better place if people didn’t have such walls with one another.

But agreeing is easy.

The hard thing — the thing that matters — is to stop and take the time to consider what we’ve read or heard, being honest about where we ourselves need to change, and then setting in motion a plan of action.

If you find yourself wanting some practical ways to deconstruct your walls and live a more connected life, I invite you to pick up a copy of The Best Advice So Far. There are also over five years’ worth of ideas and inspiration contained in this blog; so try using the “Search” function with some key words and see where it might lead you.

The important thing is to start somewhere. It doesn’t need to be by way of getting into deep conversations with strangers.

Look someone in the eye and smile.

Introduce yourself and ask someone’s name in return.

Listen with genuine interest, giving your full attention.

Intentionally bring cheer to a tense situation.

Write a short, unexpected thank-you card.

You don’t need a wrecking ball.

Walls come down all the same one brick at a time.

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