When I was a little boy, after school knocks on the front door and friends’ invitations to come out and play were part of my daily routine. They were as predictable, warm and welcoming as the sunrise – a daily reminder that I was wanted, that I mattered, that there was someone in the world who enjoyed my company enough to take the initiative to ask for it. I’m quite certain none of that occurred to me at the time, let alone to the friends who I’m sure assigned no significance at all to their knocking, but it became a lot more obvious to me over time, as did the critical role those simple knocks likely played in preserving my emotional well-being and in subconsciously bolstering my increasingly fragile self-esteem. That eventual awareness stemmed from the fact that my children grew up in a very different, much less intimate and more impersonal world – a world in which knocks on the door were replaced with text and instant messages, where social networking platforms like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and Instagram not only became the principal, but the preferred means by which they and their peers communicated with one another – and still do today.
Theirs was a world in which words, indeed entire sentences, were replaced with acronyms, where often complex thoughts and feelings were reduced to what could fit into 142 characters or less, and where smiley faces and emoji’s were substituted, in the name of expediency, if not emotional laziness, for a warm embrace, a radiant in-person smile, the self-reflection seen in another’s loving eyes and the tender touch of a friend or lover. Smart phones, tablets and laptops became their (and their friends’) lifeline to the outside world, a world that they no longer were forced to leave their bedrooms to explore – and often didn’t. For many, the virtual world became their world, a world where almost everything they needed was just a few key strokes away – everything of course but true friendship and physical companionship, the most fundamental needs of the human heart. Perhaps it is little wonder then that, as they enter into young adulthood, so many in my children’s generation often report feeling disillusioned, disconnected or, worse yet, lonely and undesirable.
Three weeks ago, a young friend of mine died unexpectedly. She was a contemporary of my children. Her death shook me to my core, in part, for that reason – that and because I know that, despite her infectious smile, her effervescent personality and her playful and engaging spirit, she often felt very much alone. In the days after her death, someone who knew I was struggling with it wrote to ask “if I was seeing the outpouring of love and support for her on Facebook”, thinking, I’m sure, that it would comfort me. “I have been watching,” I replied not intending the words that followed to sound as harsh as I knew they would, “but the outpouring is not for my friend. My friend is dead. It is about her.” And then I wondered, not wanting to be judgmental or to assign blame . . . I wondered how many of the beautiful, affirming and soul-healing words I’d read were spoken to my friend in life when she at least had a chance to hear them. I wondered whether in the days, weeks and months leading up to her death those same people had taken the initiative to call or stop by her apartment for no particular reason other than just to see how she was doing or offer their support.
I wondered when my friend had last heard her phone actually ring, rather than chime at the news of another incoming text, so that she could answer it and hear the sound and tone of a fellow human being’s voice on the other end. I wondered whether anyone had ever knocked on her door as a child or as a young adult and asked if “she could come out and play” – and, if not, why not? Was it because they were too busy – because they thought she was too busy? Was it because, knowing her struggles, they were afraid that she wouldn’t answer or if she did that she wouldn’t come out or they wouldn’t know the “right thing” to say? Were they counting on her to take the initiative to call or visit them or perhaps simply tired of taking it themselves? Was it because they felt that an occasional text message, tweet or Facebook post was enough to let her know that she mattered, that they cared? Were they simply misled by her often cheerful disposition into believing that “she was fine” when, in fact, she was anything but? Did they just not fully appreciate the gravity of the situation or the depth of her loneliness?
And then I wondered if, in the 11th hour, I should have made a special trip to her front door myself, to knock and ask if “she could come out and play”. After all, I knew she needed it – and I knew how much those knocks had meant to me.
Chances are there’s someone in your life right now whose heart would dance if it heard the sound of your voice, a knock on the door or an unsolicited invitation to “come out and play”. Maybe it’s an old friend you’ve fallen a bit out of touch with, a classmate you’ve only recently met, someone you’ve connected with on Social Media, a high school friend who’s gone off to college, a sibling, a member of your church or a colleague at work. Maybe that “someone” is you. Trust your instincts. If it’s you, honor my friend by reaching out. Be direct. Share your heart’s longing for company and connection (e.g., “I could really use a friend right now”) and keep reaching until you hear your phone ring or a knock at your door – or both. If it’s someone you know, honor my friend, by skipping the text and calling instead (e.g., “I was just thinking about you and thought I would call to see if you’d like to meet for coffee”). Maybe, together, we could start a revolution – one knock, one call and one heart at a time!