Elaine fit in everywhere. There was no place we went, grocery, gas station, school, church or the mall where someone didn’t wave, say hi, give her a hug or seem glad to see her.
“How do you do it?” I asked her one day. “How do you fit into so many groups? I don’t fit in anywhere.” I was in my 20’s and lonely. Once I was out of college my friends had gone their separate ways and we just never stayed in touch. I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. We had walked down to the mall for lunch and she was walking me back to work as we talked.
“Do you fit in with me?” she asked.
“Of course! I feel like we have a lot in common and that I can talk to you about anything!” I said.
“Well, I’m 65 years old, more than twice your age. I never went to college. I don’t know your parents. I was always a stay-at-home mother and have never really held a job. I never played sports. What do we have in common?”
I was taken aback. I had no idea. I scrambled to come up with a reason I felt like we connected and why I fit in and I failed. But Elaine laughed.
“Maybe what you feel is not that you fit in, but that you’re loved and accepted for who you are,” she suggested.
“All it takes to fit in anywhere,” she explained, “Is to love, accept and respect everyone you meet.”
“But a lot of the people I meet are jerks.”
“Then you have to find the part of them that is not a jerk and like that part. Have you ever been called a jerk or a bully or had people dislike you?” she asked.
“Do you think the people were justified in thinking that?”
“Maybe sometimes. But overall I’m a good person!” I argued.
“Many people are, even when they’re jerks and bullies. The problem is we don’t look past that to see that they want to be accepted, liked and respected as much as you do.”
I looked at her kind eyes and felt uncomfortable, afraid and angry.
“It’s easy for you to say. Everyone likes you.”
“Not really,” she said. “Lots of people don’t like me. Lots of people do, but I’m not universally loved.”
That came as a shock. But about the only thing that shocked me more was when she told me that at my age she was much like me—something that attracted her to me.
“I had to learn to love,” she said. “I had a chip on my shoulder, something to prove and a lot of anger inside. Most people do, just in differing degrees. And trust me, learning to love others isn’t easy. You have to love yourself first. That gives you the confidence to feel good even when other people reject you. Then you have to reach out to other people. Even when some reject you, laugh at you, ignore your or become abusive you have to keep reaching out. Eventually you learn to recognize those who are open, willing, and hungry for love and respect too. Then you hear ‘no,’ less and ‘yes’ more. It’s a process,” she said.
We walked along in silence for a while, and then we ran into yet another person who came up and gave her a big hug. When we got to the door of my workplace she gave me a hug and a challenge.
“Just meet one new person a day. Just introduce yourself, say hello and find something you have in common. You don’t have to become their friend for life, but just practice.”
I nodded. “I can do that.” She smiled, waved goodbye and walked down the sidewalk to the bus stop.
I met Elaine’s challenge. For the past 36 years I’ve made it a point to meet one new person a day. That’s more than 13,140 people. I can easily say the true number is three times that. As a journalist I often met 10 to 20 new people a day. I didn’t become friends with all of them, but I have stayed in touch with or befriended many of them. Over the years I’ve created a network of real people, not just strangers who have “friended” me on some social network. It’s made all the difference in the world to my life, my personal growth and my development as a person.
So this year I’m challenging each and every one of you to the same challenge. Introduce yourself to one new person a day. If one a day is too much, make it one a week, or one a month. You’ll get back what you put into it. Here are the guidelines:
Any time you’re feeling lonely, or at least a couple of times a year, reread all your entries. So many of us depend on social media, FaceBook or online contacts to broaden our network, but doing this in person in your community pays extra dividends. Once you’ve done it, come back and share your experience. Enjoy!