As is our custom most weekends, my older son Alex and I went hiking this past Saturday afternoon at a park with excellent trails near our home. I find this time in the woods to not only be excellent father/son time, but an opportunity to work on my health, disengage from the hectic world around me and be more thoughtful and reflective. As we walked the hilly trails, my thoughts turned to the damaging impact the pandemic has had the last two years on relationships and the overall state of disconnectedness many of us feel. I have also observed with concern the accelerated deterioration of common courtesy, gratitude and mutual respect during this time that was already in motion long before Covid turned our lives upside down. I am not sure I have ever experienced a more divisive and angry period in my adult life. This line of thinking, to be honest, put me in a bit of a gloomy mood during the hike until my son and I had three random encounters that changed my perspective for the better.
Half-way through the trail, Alex and I ran into the father-in-law of a friend of mine accompanied by three of his young grandsons who all looked to be under the age of 12. They were going fishing in the pond at the center of the park and I have rarely seen a more joyful group. I have known this gentleman for several years and we struck up a casual conversation about family, business and life in general. He told his grandsons who I was and much to my surprise, each of the boys extended their hand in greeting, introduced themselves, told me their name/age and said it was “nice to meet you Mr. Hain”. Knowing something of the values and character of this man’s family, I should not have been surprised. Still, I was impressed and gratified to see the teaching influence of the boys’ parents and grandparents at work in these children in how they displayed sincere courtesy and respect at such a young age and how much they enjoyed each other’s company. My mood began to improve as I continued with Alex on the trail and we bid the happy family goodbye.
A little further along, Alex and I encountered a married couple who commented on the Samford University sweatshirt I was wearing. They asked me if I attended Samford and I shared that my younger son Ryan is a junior at the school. This led to a friendly conversation about their college age kids, the challenges our children faced over the last two years with hybrid classrooms and our shared concern about their career and life prospects in today’s world. As I often mentor college students about life and careers, I gave them my card and asked them to have their kids reach out to me if I can be of any assistance. They thanked me profusely and the father shared with me that he was a senior executive at the company where my younger son happens to have an internship this summer. When he learned about my son’s upcoming job, he quickly offered to reach out to my son and ensure he has a good internship experience. What started out as a friendly conversation between absolute strangers inspired by a college logo on a sweatshirt, turned into the potential for helpful mutual assistance for our college age kids. My mood brightened further as Alex and I left the friendly couple.
As we continued our walk, with me deep in thought and reflecting on the lessons of these two encounters, I was startled by a loud “Good afternoon!” I looked up to see an elderly gentleman with a walking stick smiling warmly at me and Alex. He remarked that it was a beautiful day in accented English and I shared his observation that indeed, it was wonderful weather for a hike. He seemed eager to engage in conversation and shared that he had emigrated to the United States from Thailand a few years ago to be near his children and grandchildren. Sadly, his wife passed away last year. We had little in common except, perhaps, a mutual desire to simply have a conversation and relate to each other as good human beings. I shared a little about my life in return, before wishing him a good afternoon. The warmth of his smile and sincere kindness will stay with me for a while and I am grateful to have met him.
I thoughtfully reflected on these random encounters along the hiking trail as I drove us home. It dawned on me that if we can sometimes slow down and experience life in real time, we can enjoy these teaching moments that will open our eyes and perhaps touch our hearts. Moments like these can also give us hope and fortify us for the unpredictable life journey in front of us. It is worthy of note as we consider the world we live in today, that none of these encounters involved a discussion about politics or which side we were on regarding other sensitive issues. We just reached out across the man-made barriers that often separate people and simply made connections. We attempted to be good human beings on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of the woods and I would suggest we succeeded. It is not far-fetched to recognize that there is so much more that we have in common as cohabitants of this planet versus what sets us apart.
I am hopeful the painful days of lockdowns and mask mandates are permanently behind us. I encourage all of us to re-connect in meaningful ways to those we have become physically distant from the last two years. I believe people are craving deeper connection and eagerly seeking it. Most importantly, I humbly challenge the readers of this post to treat all the people we encounter at work and in the community with more kindness, courtesy and respect. Reject anger, frustration and divisiveness and instead embrace compassion, mercy and forgiveness. Relationships, genuine connection and a sense of true community require people to be curious, active listeners, to care about each other and desire what is truly best for each other. We are all members of the human race and have an obligation and duty to look for the good in others and treat each other well.
My faith in humanity received a little boost out on the hiking trail. If you can slow down and be present, savor your encounters with others and break down the unnecessary walls that divide us, this can be your experience as well. Be brave and go for a walk after you read this and see who crosses your path.