At some point last year I was introduced to Jerry Seinfeld’s web-series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. It is no big surprise that it has become something of a phenomenon given the dramatis personae involved. Watching a few episodes with my wife, Laura, I quickly came to understand that the premise is less about the coffee. To me, it is much more about the relationship and interaction between Jerry Seinfeld and his guest of the moment.
By now it must some five or six years since I first began broadcasting an open invitation to the members of my congregation, Temple Shalom of Newton, to join me for a cup of coffee. I honestly cannot quantify the amount of coffee (or tea) I have consumed in this time. I can name more than a few coffee shops which have, no doubt, been positively impacted by my venture. Earlier this year I looked through a congregational membership list in an attempt to get some idea of just how many folks I’ve been able to connect with in this manner over these past years.
Just like Jerry Seinfeld’s time riding in cars with his guests, the time I’ve spent over coffee and tea has not been fundamentally about the beverages consumed. I have been richly blessed to hear people’s stories, and to engage in meaningful conversations about the things that matter in people’s lives. In many cases, one cup and one hour spent together has led to more cups and conversations. In some cases, these conversations have provided the opportunity for me to help a member find his or her niche in our larger community. In some cases, it has afforded me the opportunity to hear complaints or concerns about our community. Sometimes the discussion turns on some challenge my companion is facing. I have learned so much through the time I have spent in these one-on-one conversations. I cherish the connections I have been able to forge through the time I have spent in these smaller settings.
Sometimes folks are surprised that I do not meet others in more off-the-beaten-path locations. It’s not that I don’t cherish some level of privacy. I most certainly respect the privacy and confidentiality of those with whom I meet. However, sitting in different spots around our community makes me feel more connected. I find myself willfully choosing to “hide-in-plain-sight” as I invariably run into (or am run into by) other members of the community. I like feeling a part of, rather than apart from my community.
Courtesy of the various forms of technology we have, both literally and figuratively, at our fingertips, we live in an age of greater connectivity. Yet, at the same time a growing number of studies show that we are more isolated from one another than ever before. In a blogpost based on her recent book, Everyday Ambassador: Making a Difference by Connecting in a Disconnected World, author Kate Otto notes the paradoxical nature of technology in our lives. She describes an Amharic proverb shared with her by an Ethiopian friend: Bechawenyebela, bechawenyemotal. (“He who eats alone, dies alone.”) I was immediately reminded of a story from Jewish tradition which offers the exact same image as it draws a distinction between two different visions of the World-to-Come: one for those who are connected to the world and people around them, and the other for those who are not.
There is no question that technology has many benefits in my work and my life. But I am keenly aware that the myriad screens before my eyes are no substitute for face-to-face encounters; conversation and relationship. As Martin Buber once put it in his masterpiece I and Thou, “All real living is meeting.”