Regular readers know that we recently returned from a trip that started in Buenos Aires and included a cruise around Cape Horn following Dr. Bob Carson, professor of geology at Whitman, who lectured about the region and led hikes: during, pre, and post. There were almost a hundred of us from the Walla Walla area. What surprised me was how little mixing there was between and among the Walla Walla crowd.
You would think that a hundred of us from the same town would mix, mingle, and get to know each other better during two weeks on a ship carrying thirteen hundred passengers. That didn’t happen. Small knots of friends stuck together. Casual acquaintances greeted each other but tended to pass on. Making an effort to meet someone new often ran into a polite boundary that said, in essence, “I don’t know you back home, why are you greeting me here?” It was’t meant in a snobbish way. It was more out of surprise at being greeted unexpectedly. It seemed that names and faces were soon forgotten even when introductions were made. Dianna, my wife, has an excellent memory for faces. Once she meets someone, that’s it: she never forgets. Both on the trip and after, she would see someone she had met, give them a friendly greeting and ask about the trip. A common response has been a blank stare of no recognition.
This from people who are residents of a small city once crowned The Friendliest Town in America.
So what was going on?
Well, let me speak for myself. We didn’t go to Buenos Aires as a group. Each of us had our own travel plans. As for us, we were coming from Maui, and it was a long, long flight from there to Seattle to Houston to Buenos Aires. Nevertheless, we were assured that someone would meet us. Wandering around outside customs looking for whoever that was, I was relieved to spot people I knew back home. A little knot of old friends is a powerful social magnet. “I don’t know where I am and don’t understand what’s going on, but there are my friends. I’ll start there.”
We’ve traveled around the globe, and have never had much trouble finding our way. I could have done the same with any group of equally confused tourists. One time in China we managed our confusion with the help of a couple of Chinese equally confused with us. It can be done, but our little band of a hundred wasn’t made up of strangers. It was made up of knots of friends and acquaintances. Our knots were people with whom I looked forward to sharing the adventures that lay ahead, adventures we would talk about for years to come. It wasn’t intended to exclude anyone else, but it leaned in that direction.
And that’s what tended to happen throughout the trip. Who got left out were people who were not a part of any particular knot of friends and acquaintances, and what a shame that was. The thing is, we really are a friendly community. Our group of a hundred was undoubtedly among the most friendly. Experience indicates that it isn’t hard to break into a group, or make new friends, and strangers are warmly welcomed by most. The problem is that it takes some initiative by the one who is not in a knot, and that takes an enormous amount of social courage, more than many of us have.
We were invited to an on board cocktail reception that did not include anyone from our group. I spotted a couple not talking to anyone, so I went over to introduce myself and see if I could get a knot going. They assumed I was part of the ship’s staff because I took the initiative to introduce myself and ask about them. They told me they were from a place in northern England, were sure they were the only Brits on the ship, and felt a little lonely. I pointed out a gaggle of Brits not ten feet away, and not just Brits, but from the same region. I knew that because the larger group had welcomed me into their knot not long before. Later on I noticed the couple tentatively edging their way toward them, but not seeing an easy opening in the circle they retreated to a corner by themselves. Social courage is hard to come by. The fear of rejection is deep in each of us. I know. At heart I’m a shy, introverted person.
Social awareness of what is going on around us appears to be hard to come by also. How hard can it be to sense a person hovering near by who wants to be noticed and included, but is reluctant to butt in?
What struck me is that what happened on our trip is the same thing that happens in congregations all across the country Sunday after Sunday. We proclaim ourselves to be churches where everyone is welcome. We work hard to recruit greeters and guides of one kind or another. It works for a short time, and then it’s back to knots of friends visiting with each other and ignoring those who are not in a knot. It’s not intentional. It just happens. Now and then someone has the courage to break in, but not often. Now and then a congregation is blessed with someone like my wife who recognizes the stranger, enjoys the prospect of meeting him or her, and never forgets a face or name. We could use more like her. I work on it, but not always that well.