In praise of erring

Guiding Light

I was hang­ing out at Sip yes­ter­day, doing my usual thing: Get­ting a lit­tle writ­ing done, drink­ing a lot of coffee.

But as I worked (and sipped) I found myself dis­tracted by two young women a few tables away. It’s not that they were loud, it’s that they were inter­est­ing.  At first, I just thought (as I often do) what a great town this is!  From there, it was a quick leap to “You know what? I’d like to meet them.”

A quick leap in my mind, but an awk­ward one to enact. This is what I thought as I fin­gered two busi­ness cards I’d pulled from my bag and con­tem­plated next steps. For a few min­utes more, I went back and forth. And then: I just did it.

I approached their table, smil­ing. Cau­tious smiles in response. I blath­ered some­thing about how I couldn’t help but overhear—and I knew that this must seem sort of strange—but that they just sounded so inter­est­ing that I’d decided to say Hi!

And you know what? They were lovely. Exactly like they’d sounded.

Not sur­pris­ingly, this being the town that it is, we already shared friends. Kate co-owns the vibrant Imp­ish, a “mis­chie­vously play­ful” Northamp­ton children’s store that I’ve vis­ited with my friend Sarah, whom Kate also knows.  Fran is a for­mer busi­ness law stu­dent of my pro­fes­sor friend Jen­nifer and about to begin a new job on Maine’s  same-sex mar­riage cam­paign. (I knew they were interesting!)

My friend Naomi quotes her mother as say­ing “Always err on the side of gen­eros­ity.” This encounter got me to think­ing how the same could just as well be said about human connection.

There are many times when the “right” course of action isn’t totally clear. If we’re going to over-steer, in which direc­tion should we risk erring?

Always steer­ing towards human con­nec­tion strikes me as a good default rule.  And I say this not just because it sounds good but for very prac­ti­cal reasons.

Look­ing back, I see that, time and again, the choice to con­nect has enriched my life in many and var­i­ous ways. No, not each and every time but more often than you might think.

A cou­ple of recent exam­ples relat­ing to this blog:

After writ­ing about celebrity blog­ger Pene­lope Trunk, I tweeted the post to her on a lark. To my sur­prise (and delight) she read it and left a lovely com­ment, which lifted my spir­its on a day that my spir­its needed lifting.

More recently, I wrote the (tongue-in-cheek) post “I Should Be You” about The Flu­ent Self’s mag­i­cal Havi Brooks, and once again, sent it on with no real expec­ta­tion of response. When she linked to the post, it resulted in my blog’s high­est traffic-ever day—and, in the process, con­nected me with a bunch of really won­der­ful people.

I’ve also gained a lot from being on the other side of the equation–the per­son being con­nected to rather than the con­nec­tor. The fact that I’m liv­ing in this town at all is largely due to the fact that the afore­men­tioned Jen­nifer (my law school class­mate) wrote me a warm con­grat­u­la­tory note after my first novel came out. We’d been friendly but not really “friends” before—and out of touch for years. Today, much of the good in my life can be traced to that out-of-the-blue email.

Another reminder came this week via writer Car­olyn Nash (a pen name), who’d read that I work with fos­ter kids and left a com­ment on my blog offer­ing to send a copy of Rais­ing Abel, her fos­ter care mem­oir. As it hap­pened, I’d already heard about the book on Work­stew and been mean­ing to find it. (“A woman of remark­able resource­ful­ness single-handedly raises a trou­bled child all the way to man­hood in this inti­mate and inspir­ing blog-to-book mem­oir,” is how Kirkus Reviews describes it.)  I told her I was eager to read it. And I’m already writ­ing about it.

Of course, not all attempts to con­nect will yield the hoped-for con­nec­tions. In another life, when I was writ­ing thrillers, I mus­tered up my courage, and placed a call to some­one I’d been friendly with in col­lege, who some­times reviewed books. I caught her at a bad time. She was icy. The call ended quickly. I felt terrible.

Think­ing about this phone call now—still clear in my mind after all this years—it occurs to me that it’s an excel­lent exam­ple of the human “neg­a­tiv­ity bias.”  As described by Buddha’s Brain author Rick Han­son, our brains are “Vel­cro for neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences but Teflon for pos­i­tive ones.” This is because our brains evolved to keep us from get­ting eaten, not with the goal of assur­ing that we live happy and pleas­ant lives. As Han­son sees it, we need to do what we can to push back this tendency.

For me, choos­ing con­nec­tion is one way to do this. Life is full of risks, and the choices we make on any given day won’t always leave us delighted. But by erring on the side of human con­nec­tion, I’m pretty sure we raise our odds.