(close) encounters of the human kind

in the wake of storms threatening to cut off access to the internet on the east coast several months ago a friend posted the following quote from the borowitz report on his facebook page:
“As Hurricane Irene batters the East Coast, FEDERAL DISASTER OFFICIALS HAVE WARNED that Internet outages could force people to interact with each other for the first time in years. Residents are bracing themselves for the horror of awkward silences and unwanted eye contact. FEMA has advised: “Be prepared. Write down possible topics to talk about in advance. Sports...the weather. Remember, a face-to-face conversation is basically a series of Facebook updates all strung together. Hang in there.”
while natural disasters and the people that they impact are not fodder for laughter, this author is so accurate about where we have found ourselves as a people. we have, so quickly, become adept at living in spaces that do not require contact with others in ways that awaken our senses. we are wimps, of sorts, in the arena of encountering. especially of encountering in person.
how often do we hear the statistics relating to the common occurrence of faked phone conversations in order to avoid real time conversations? i’ve used my phone to avoid petitioners on the street. i’ve prolonged calls in order to appear busy. i’ve texted to avoid the person next to me at the lunch counter.
and i ask myself, “why?” “do i trust myself so little?” “am i really such a poor communicator that i can’t decline a conversation directly?” “am i actually willing to disrespect myself and those i encounter by lying so easily?” “has it really come to this?”
literature reviews tell us that increased time in front of screens leads to less family talk time (whether that be family by blood, by choice, or by geography) and less social practice. further, research (and common sense) tells us that social practice and time spent conversing with others helps us to find our way and develop ourselves as relational people. the twin tasks of encountering others and encountering ourselves are deeply intertwined it seems.
when we speak of relationship we automatically infer that we are talking about alliances between self and an other. in reality, however, the primary relationship of self with self determines much of how relationships with self and other will begin and develop. once such self and other alliances are made, the connections therein serve to provide feedback loops of sorts regarding how we are doing in our relational pursuits. 
when a strong, honest, congruent, and insightful relationship exists between a person and his or her own internal world, that person often demonstrates the confidence and resilience to tolerate the risks associated with “fully present living” within the context of others. they can sense internal longings to know their own mind and heart as well as to encounter the minds and hearts of others. there is a freedom to be onesself as well as the knowledge that a deep respect for others will keep ones’ narcissism in check.
a difficulty, as i see it, is that our growing addiction to things on or in our ears and screens at our faces is keeping us not only from knowing others but also from knowing ourselves. this puts us at risk for feeling ill equipped for knowing how to encounter our own desires and wishes for solitude and connection let alone discerning how to blend those with the connection or retreating needs of those we encounter. we feel at a loss for knowing if we can risk a few minutes (or hours) of connection, for feeling confident about both beginning and ending conversations, and for trusting that we can navigate the world of the social and related.
when we avoid a present other by interacting with one confined to written words on a screen (or worse, an imaginary voice on the other end of the phone) we are really playing into the fact that we have no idea how to act with volition, how to assert ourselves appropriately with others. we fear hurting feelings or feel angry that someone feels entitled to our time all the while ignoring the fact that we can, if we chose to, handle encounters...even difficult ones. we lose out on opportunities to practice encountering others while staying rooted in the self.
for instance, it is o.k. to look someone in the eye and say, “your passion is inspiring and i’m really not able to stop and talk right now.” or, “i appreciate how difficult a task you have chosen and i’m needing to be on my way.” it’s also acceptable to decline small talk at the lunch counter in order to regroup silently for a busy afternoon (“it is so thoughtful of you to speak with me. i’m actually needing to ‘go silent,’ for a bit, however, to get myself geared up for the rest of a demanding day. thank you for your kindness”). conversely it’s o.k. to respectfully initiate conversations with those you encounter, paying attention to being neither narcissistically entitled to their time and attention nor insensitive to the cues they send about their openness or lack thereof. none of these may be familiar, or comfortable, or even within your imagined repertoire, but all of these things are options and they are far kinder and more respectable (to both yourself and the other) than out-of-hand avoidance.
so, the next time you encounter a lonely stranger on a park bench, consider your options. when a clip board clad youngster with propaganda inspired garments nearly tackles you, weigh your response. somewhere between avoidance and engagement lies encounter and encounters are rife with opportunities for growth and opportunity in your relationship with yourself and with others.