A few weeks ago, I was at one of those restaurants where you order at the register and they buzz you when your meal is ready. The guy at the register was really, really cheerful. You would have thought I was his long lost friend he thought had died, now miraculously appearing before him alive and well, ordering a margherita pizza. As he greeted me with robust enthusiasm, I found myself grinning like an idiot, attempting to somehow meet his cheerfulness in equal measure, as if we were in a battle for who was the happiest. I’m pretty sure he won the battle by a long shot. Even on my most boisterous days, I could never match that kind of enthusiasm. Plus, it turned out that day happened to be a challenging one for me, so my attempt to engage at that level was not only unsuccessful, but also inauthentic, exhausting, and painful.
I walked away from the encounter feeling oddly irritated, sad, and empty. I struggled to make sense of why I felt so awful after encountering such a cheerful man. It wasn’t that I felt he was being inauthentic, although whenever anyone acts that way my cynical side does tend to wonder if it’s some sort of facade. Even if it was a facade, though, I knew it was something else—something deeper—that I was struggling with.
At the time I came to conclude I was upset because we had completely missed each other in that brief exchange. There was no genuine connection. I wasn’t able to come up to the clouds to meet him where he was, and it seemed he did not notice my somewhat quiet and somber mood. And so it was yet another vacuous encounter, all too common in this often superficial culture.
Then I had another experience which deepened this realization further. I watched a recording of one of those online webinars where a presenter/guest comes on to share her wisdom. In a way, the woman on this webinar reminded me of the insufferably cheerful server. She smiled and giggled for at least an hour straight as she shared about her passion and offering. It seemed that a permanent smile had been plastered on her face. Don’t get me wrong—the joy beaming off this woman was powerful and contagious. I could immediately understand why thousands of people flock to her workshops. Just being in her “virtual” presence felt comforting, like somehow her joy would seep through the screen into my bones.
The group who hosted this event consists of people I love and highly respect. I must admit to being morbidly curious about what would happen when she finished and the group had a chance to ask questions. Surely this brilliant and highly conscious group would bring forward insightful, probing questions, right? Wrong.
Instead, I was stunned to watch most of these articulate, brilliant people react to this woman in much the same way I had reacted to the insufferably cheerful server. They smiled strangely fake smiles. They giggled and laughed and heaped praise upon her. As I witnessed this strange scene unfold, I must admit to being shocked and somewhat mortified. But now, thinking back on my reaction to the cheerful server, I realize that almost certainly I would have acted similarly if forced to interact with that woman in those circumstances. After all, only weeks before, I had behaved in pretty much the same manner in an ill-fated attempt to somehow connect with the all-too-energetic server.
We human beings have a deep and profound need to connect in a meaningful way with one another. As I imagined myself in the position of having to interact with the webinar woman, I felt this sort of frantic, panicked energy arise. What would I say? How would I act? How would I—a mere mortal with a full range of human emotions and failings—connect with someone who seemed only willing to expresss a mix of giddiness and delight while subtly denigrating the “lower” emotions as unenlightened? Trying to connect with her would have been like trying to connect with a whisp of smoke. No depth. No real connection.
We cannot connect with another person at a human level if we are unwilling or unable to be real. An important way we connect is through vulnerability. Vulnerability starts with being real with ourselves, and then slowly moving into being real with others. Spiritual bypassing—which is what I believe this webinar woman was doing—is by definition ungrounded and simply a way of avoiding the messiness of being human. Yes, being human includes joy, but it also includes grief, and longing, and confusion, and despair, and a million other things. If a plastered-on smile and cheerfulness is all that is welcome in an interaction (and we know when this is the case, have no doubt), then we will not connect at any real depth because we are limited to sharing a teaspoon of who we really are.
It takes two to tango, as they say. I once heard a story of a check-out lady at the grocery store who noticed a man in line was looking sullen. Rather than meeting him with a blast of cheerfulness, instead she said, “Hey, what’s wrong, honey?” He told her a bit. She responded empathetically and gave him a piece of wisdom to boot. They connected at a real level. It was the man I heard this story from years after the encounter. We remember connections like this. It is what we all want. It’s what I wanted with the insufferably cheerful server; it’s what I want with everyone I meet.
It’s simple, really. All we have to do is be real with one another, listen, and respond with humility, authenticity, and vulnerability. Piece of cake, right? It may not be easy, but we have to learn to meet each other in this way to have the depth of connection we all want and need.