Last Sunday we had just stopped at a traffic light in Northern Virginia when my father began hooting with laughter from behind the wheel.
We knew my father wouldn’t waste his hoots, but nothing about our current circumstance seemed funny. He gasped an explanation:
“That guy—in the next lane!”
We all turned, not quite able to see the subject.
“He was swatting at a fly buzzing around his head …” here my father waved his hands wildly, mimicking the man. “And then he looked over, and saw me watching—and he got this smile all over his face. He got this happy look on his face like he was saying, “Oh, you saw that, too.”
We all began to laugh. The idea that a smile could travel between the faces of two strangers in separate hunks of metal in Sunday traffic seemed almost fanciful. Even more extraordinarily, the stranger, instead of pretending cool competence in the face of embarrassment, spent a grin on my father.
The brief reversal of traffic etiquette confirmed again something we knew deeper than our bones. People, designed to live in a pleasure-exchange, should delight in each other and give each other delight. The pleasure-exchange doesn’t usually happen through windshields, but Sunday’s stranger proved it possible.
Someone older and wiser asked me this summer what I identified as the wound in the world I wanted to help heal. I considered myself a perfect candidate for that kind of question, since 21-year-olds commonly think they know more about their lives than they actually do.
“One thing …” I said, “that really gets me …”
I hesitated, remembering all my friends from high school who felt called to more obvious mission fields—Ethiopia or celibacy—who could give an easier answer. But then I let my thoughts tumble out, hoping they would make some sense.
“One thing that gets me is when two people are so close but can’t actually touch each other.”
I hoped that those poets from the long tradition of ordinary people, Simon and Garfunkel, could assist my explanation. I quoted from “The Dangling Conversation”:
And I only kiss your shadow,
I cannot feel your hand,
You’re a stranger now unto me
Lost in the dangling conversation.
And the superficial sighs,
In the borders of our lives.
Then, either because of Simon and Garfunkel’s lucidity or because of my questioner’s interpretive prowess, my meaning became clear. I knew he understood my meaning because he made that surprised “hmm” sound that people sometimes make in prayers when agreeing.
What prevents the pleasure-exchange? Too many circumstances to name, of course. But every story in which interpersonal contempt or shame replaces real pleasure finds its bitter root in Eden. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil strips us naked—leaves us grasping with broken hands for the broken hands of our neighbors—and banishes us from the Garden because we can’t live forever in aloneness.
Because that isn’t the end of our story, we can pursue the pleasure-exchange, and grin at the guy in the next lane.