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Togetherness vs. Interaction: Enjoying Aloneness in a Crowd

Chris Pluger wrote "Two Hours of Joint Solitude", a very thoughtful and provocative essay about his insights and experiences in a coffeehouse, sitting alone in a crowd, and philosophizing about issues of aloneness, togetherness and transcendence. 

We haven't fallen for a cleverly invented Madison Avenue advertising campaign when we gravitate towards coffee shops, where we can sit alone with other people and enjoy an evening and a cup of java and two hours of joint solitude. I think the existence of coffee shops, and the natural affinity we have for sitting in them, comes from deep within, from an unfulfilled longing that points us to a need we never knew we had.

Just as the feeling of hunger is a strong clue that something like food might exist, just as the sensation of thirst tells us there must be water to quench it, and just as our continual human quest for transcendence gives us a hint that there is something like a God who is above and beyond this world, so also the desire we have to share experiences, to simply be together, seems to tell us that people are supposed to be with other people and enjoy time in each other's company. We weren't meant to sequester ourselves behind tinted glass and soundproof modular office dividers and the high brick walls of planned communities.

We were meant for more fulfilling contacts, more intimate interaction, and deeper understandings. Our desire to sit together in coffee shops, our longing for deep connections and meaningful relationships, points to the reality that such relationships are possible, that such connections can be made, and such togetherness is our shared destiny as humans together on Earth.

Despite these observations about our fundamentally social nature, and the value for deeper, more meaningful connections, he also observes some countervailing tendencies of his own (that, I believe, are widely shared):

How out am I at this coffee shop? I'm actually looking at the same computer screen that I see at work all day. Except for a little lighthearted interaction with the barista, I haven't spoken to or even made eye contact with anyone yet.

The essay brought to mind the social contract of the familiar stranger, wherein people regularly observe, recognize, but do not interact with, others in their midst (lest they establish a precedent whereby they may feel compelled to interact during future encounters) ... an inclination -- or perhaps disinclination, depending on how you look at it -- that I can understand, and yet have trouble accepting.  I believe that social isolation and disconnection are defense mechanisms rooted in fear and scarcity, and that the world would be a better place if more people were more willing to embrace openness, vulnerability and abundance, by lowering their barriers and sharing their shadows and gold with those around them.

Chris' observations indicate that while he did not interact with anyone at the coffeeshop, he was keenly aware of -- and even appreciative of -- their presence.  I wonder how many missed opportunities for offering or receiving something of value from his transient neighbors transpired during his two hour experience of joint solitude ... and what the cumulative social cost of such missed opportunities amount to over all the times and places where people are unwilling to risk establishing more meaningful connections with others.

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