I’ve been listening lately to Shankar Vedantam’s podcast on the social science behind human behavior, Hidden Brain. A recent episode was on the power of “weak ties,” the social connections we have with people who are not part of our inner circle. As my late husband’s birthday nears, I am noticing a difference in how I respond to the weak ties around me.
At the gym the other day, I was on an elliptical with two empty ones to my right and about seven empty ones to my left. I was happily listening to the Hidden Brain podcast when two people began working out on the two ellipticals just to my right. This seemed obnoxious to me—usually when there is a bank of empty machines, people will space themselves out on the equipment rather than working out side by side with a stranger. Even worse, the two were friends who began chatting so loudly with each other that I couldn’t hear my podcast. In frustration, I turned my podcast off and continued my workout, pondering whether I should move to one of the empty machines on my left. I quickly realized, however, that these two had a fascinating chemistry and I became engrossed in the conversation I couldn’t help but overhear. They discussed in detail how to make the perfect turkey sandwich, the frustrating love life of one of them, and the degree to which the other one hated working out. They were very different people who saw every topic they discussed differently, but their disagreements were brought up with humor and affection.
Another day, I was reading in a coffee shop, enjoying the white noise of conversations around me, when my concentration was broken by the sound of someone drumming their fingers against a table. I waited for the annoying sound to stop, but it continued. I looked around and found the perpetrator: an older man at a nearby table. My attention now drawn to him, I wondered if the woman with him found his finger-drumming as annoying as I did, but she seemed to find him enchanting, laughing and smiling in response to much of what he said, and chiming in happily to the conversation without seeming to be aware of his incessant finger drumming. I took them for a couple on a date until I overheard the man mention his younger days in the merchant marines; the woman’s response indicated they had been together back then.
Another day as I enjoyed the quiet at a book shop, a woman near me made several calls with her phone on speaker. All the calls were in French, so perhaps she felt that the language barrier would keep the calls private. As she made call after call, I got more and more agitated—I find the sound of an overheard phone call much more annoying than the white noise of most conversations I am not a part of. At some point, though, I noticed that everyone she called seemed deeply happy to hear from her. The calls were punctuated with genuine laughter and each began and ended with what sounded like professions of affection.
All of these situations would have irritated me in the past, making me feel more alone because I had no one to tell about them. I would have used them all as evidence that humans are just deeply annoying—and I might have even added the caveat “except for my late husband, who was perfect, and because he’s dead, I’ll never again experience the kind of connection with a perfect human that I had with him.” Yes, it’s a ridiculous thought—and I bet everyone who has lost a loved one has had a similar thought.
It’s what I think of as the soulmate idea—the idea that there is ONE person on the planet who can understand you and make you feel connected and 1) you are lucky if you find that person, and 2) there’s only one person who can be your soulmate, so if they die, you’re just screwed for the rest of your life. I don’t consciously buy into the idea that there is ONE person out there that you can share a deep connection with and if/when they die, you will never have that kind of connection again—and yet, there have been moments in my grief where I have felt certain that my husband’s death means I will live the rest of my life disconnected from others, profoundly alone.
In other moments, I have used the depth of my connection to my late husband as evidence that I will connect in deep and meaningful ways with other humans again—not in exactly the ways I did with my late husband, but in ways that are no less profound and meaningful. This more generous interpretation is the one I prefer and I tend to default to it, but its darker counterpart does pop into my mind from time to time.
Each of these three incidents lately have left me feeling very warm and fuzzy toward my fellow humans. The friends working out, the longtime couple, and the woman checking in with loved ones all demonstrated to me close and loving relationships. As I think about them, I can’t help but notice that I am surrounded by love. The love isn’t directed toward me, but it is there, in the ether around me, gently calling my attention to it.
There is an aspect of bittersweetness to the realization. Not too long ago, I assumed my late husband and I would one day be that longtime couple. Listening to their banter was a poignant reminder that I will not have that experience with my late husband—and perhaps not with anyone. But when I think about that kind of love existing around me—truly, all around me, at the gym, at the coffee shop, at the bookstore—I feel lighter, buoyed by the love among the weak ties that surround me.