By Terri Sloan

The digital world is an easy access world. It’s addictive. My phone is always nearby and I check it dozens of times each day. I can do almost all of my work on my phone. This is quite convenient because I travel fairly often and I never miss a beat. Whether I’m at a New York City deli or a San Diego beach, I can take calls, respond to my emails and handle my business affairs. It’s outstanding. I can’t imagine a world without my phone.

But being connected to social media has its downside. It can cause you to perceive that the United States is severely divided; this country, torn in half. The internet can make you believe that everyone is a bunch of self-centered jerks.  But it’s not real.  It’s just folks shouting ideas and arguments into a large room without decorum or restraint. We shout over each other so loudly that no one can hear a thing. But we may be surprised to find that when we step away, the noise very quickly stops.

The truth is, when we don’t look people in the eye, it’s easy to dehumanize them. I believe this is the very reason the Alt-Right exists. The people of the Alt-Right live in rural areas or smaller cities and they’re in tight-knit, mostly white, communities. They don’t have relationships with other ethnic groups. And they’re afraid. People fear the unfamiliar. They don’t know any better. It’s up to those who know better to shape the narrative.

On a recent trip, we took an early morning shuttle bus to the airport terminal. The only people on board were our black driver, my husband, and myself. We greeted each other with a polite smile and we took our seats, expecting a quiet ten-minute ride. A little to our surprise, as the bus left the curb, the driver began to tell us a story about his wife and how ‘them grandbabies’ get what they want from grandma. To be honest, I struggled to understand what he was saying. But he was cheerfully sharing and laughing about how their mama told them no, they weren’t going to the fair, but they called grandma and she said, ‘Those babies are going to the fair!’ And that was that. We laughed together like old friends.

In New York City, we rode the subway for the first time. We had to switch trains a couple times and we were apparent newbies. People could see the lost look on our faces because several stopped and asked us, ‘Do you need help?’ Sometimes a small crowd would gather around us to make sure we properly found our way. At the end of our day, I was limping from swollen feet and – I kid you not – an older heavy set woman who was standing with her cart near the tracks asking for change saw the pain in my face and said, ‘Oh no, honey, you in pain. I’m not gonna ask you for anything, bless your heart.’ Her empathy made my eyes water.

My husband belongs to an Urban Sketchers group of about 12-25 artists which meet once per month at various places in the city. It’s actually not always the same group of people each time. I tag along to get out of the house, but it’s one of my favorite things to do. After they meet up and spend a couple hours drawing, we share a meal together and it’s terrific. I don’t even know half their names or much of anything about them, but we talk and laugh, maybe have a glass of wine together, and enjoy each others’ company. We don’t debate. We don’t argue. I have no idea what anyone’s political persuasions are.  And Lord, I don’t want to.

People are mostly good and kind. People want to do the right thing. They want to help. There is comedy, community, and compassion out there. People tell funny stories, hold doors, give directions, and give up subway seats. It isn’t inevitable for politics to tear us apart.  We need to step away from our computers and step outside our doors and enjoy the folks around us. We need to put down our phones and look around us to find out who these people are. Face to face. Let’s be sure to live out there in the real world, too.

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.

~ Maya Angelou

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