The Barriers Between Us

I think it is fair to say that people, in general, like to talk. Some people talk more than others do. My wife has mentioned that I need a t-shirt that reads, “I’m talking and I can’t shut up.” I have noticed that while the population seems to be in many places, it is getting harder and harder to connect with people and communicate with them.

Once upon a time, it was possible to pick up the telephone, punch seven numbers, and after a short wait of two or three rings, you would hear a human voice come on the line and say “hello.” You may have noticed, like I have, that those days are coming to an end. If you pick up a telephone today to call your utility company to report a problem or call a credit card company to verify that they received your payment, chances are that a machine will answer the phone rather than a human being. Many times, it is even difficult to reach a friend of a family member on the first call attempt without having to leave a message on a voice mail system or answering machine.

On many occasions while I am waiting for several minutes on hold, a recorded message will say, “Please continue to hold, your call is very important to us.” Sometimes I would like to respond with, “Yeah, if my call were really important, an actual person would have answered the phone rather than a machine!”

While I could, no doubt, write many pages about the frustrations of dealing with voice mail and automated phone systems, I would only be addressing a symptom of a bigger problem we all face. The larger problem is this: more and more barriers are being built between people. Some are physical barriers, some are electronic and some are psychological. I think it is important that we recognize the fact that barriers exist and perhaps find ways of reaching out to others. In addition to machines taking over the telecommunications arena, more and more citizens are choosing to live in gated communities. For example, there are gated communities being built in the area where I live.

There are many other examples. When our cars run out of gas, we can purchase gas with the “pay at the pump” feature and never communicate with anyone in the flesh. I have heard that many banks would rather their customers do their banking on-line instead of walking into the bank. Pretty soon, we will all have the option of using a “self-checkout” at the grocery store, avoiding yet another potential conversation with a human being. One can now buy music, books, electronics, kitchenware, clothing and many other items online. You might even be surprised to learn that there is an online church where one can worship and be safe from having to communicate with anyone in person. (Gee, and all this time, I thought that it was “people” that made up a church.)

For a final example, consider email. It has become the communication method of choice for many including myself. In many ways, it helps us keep in better contact with each other. Email allows me to keep in almost daily contact with my parents and friends from around the country and world. There are many advantages to email. However, this medium of virtual communication is a poor substitute for a phone conversation or a real face-to-face meeting with a living breathing human being.

Some might think that I am against cell phones, the Internet and other technological advances. I am not. In many ways, technology can be used to make life better. On the other hand, if one so chooses, technology can be used to isolate oneself from others. I have observed that when, when given this choice, some individuals are choosing to close the door on the world around them. Voice mails are often ignored or overlooked. Emails can go unanswered. A friendly “hello” can fall on seemingly deaf ears.

There is a credit card company currently running TV commercials promoting a contest in which the grand prizewinner will receive his/her own private island. In the past, there have been many stories written about being stranded on a deserted island. In many of these stories, the main character tries desperately to get off the island. Have we come full circle to the point where many of us want to stay on the island in an attempt achieve happiness by being alone? Can we be happy by living alone and isolated from others? I don’t think so.

A few years ago, I suffered a nasty fall while getting Christmas decorations out of the attic. My arm was broken in two places. I was alone. After struggling to get to the recliner, I called my wife on her cell phone. You guessed it. I got voicemail. Luckily, she called me back after a few minutes and said she was on the way. I breathed a sigh of relief. A few weeks ago, I remember hearing a story about a man who had been dead for four days in his mobile home. A baby, near death, was also found with him. Fortunately, the baby was saved. In hearing this story, I could not help to ask myself why someone did not miss this man in the four days after his death. The danger in isolating ourselves is that often times we isolate ourselves from the help we may need.

Another downside to the go it alone approach to life is that we do not make opportunities to get to know the people that live around us. There is a name for people we don’t know. They are called strangers. We are taught at an early age that strangers cannot be trusted. I am all for protecting children. However, I believe that it is overkill for mature adults to shut out individuals we might encounter only because we do not know them. It is easy to think the worst about people we don’t know. After all, that gray haired lady shopping on isle seven at the grocery store might be a shoplifter. Furthermore, the man that walks his dog by your home every morning might be a burglar. While it is good idea to be cautious and use common sense when it comes to safety, thinking that everyone around you is a threat is ridiculous.

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It is more likely that that gray-haired lady shopping on isle seven is a lonely widow whose nearest family is resides in another town or state. Also that man who you see walking down your street with his dog might actually be someone who moved to the area to accept a new job. It has been said, “Strangers are friends we haven’t met yet.” I think we all need to be open to making new friends. A warm smile can be as refreshing as a cold glass of ice tea on a hot day. There have been many times when a stranger said a word of encouragement to me when I needed to hear it most. I believe all one needs to know is that somebody cares. In fact, there are many people and organizations that have the right idea when it comes to reaching out to others. A small church in the area has a permanent message below their sign. It says, “Come as you are. You’ll be loved.” Maybe it’s about time we break down the barriers.

[Michael Robinson is an advertising account representative, reporter, and columnist with The Belton Journal in Belton, Texas. He considers himself somewhat of a “news hound,” and enjoys keeping track of the latest national events and political issues.]

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