Lyla, my pint-sized Australian Shepherd mix, loves to acknowledge everyone, and I mean everyone, when we’re out for a walk. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is or what type of shoes you’re wearing: no one is immune to her insatiable drive to greet any non-threatening, unsuspecting, this-could-be-my-new-best-friend human.
If we pass someone on the sidewalk who doesn’t return her curious gaze or offer a “How cute!”, or at the very least a smile, she looks at me bewildered. “Did they not see me?” her expression seems to say, a trace of hope in her amber eyes. She’ll then turn to watch the stranger as they continue on their way, tail wagging, poised for an exchange that she still can’t figure out why hasn’t happened yet.
“I don’t get it either,” I’ll reassure her. I have my suspicions of course: this person was distracted; that person wasn’t interested; this person was worried that a brief exchange would turn into a 15-minute rescue story, that would inevitably lead to crying, which would then lead to, “Can I invite you in?”; and two hours later not only would my dog have a new best friend but so would I.
It’s no use trying to explain this to Lyla though, who was just doing her part to break down barriers and build connections. The dog’s a peacemaker, and a certifiably adorable one at that.
Perhaps it was the person’s scent she was picking up on — or their pace or their overall demeanor — dogs have a sixth sense about this. It was certainly a lesson in paying attention to the seemingly mundane during a routine that had the danger of becoming, well, just that: too routine. Whatever the reason behind her behavior, it never fails to make me smile.
When it began to happen more regularly, I started to question my initial hunch: maybe it had nothing to do with the types of people we passed, be it their shoes or their scent, but everything to do with Lyla’s belief that everyone is someone worth encountering,
She doesn’t discriminate based on whether you flossed that morning or how you take your coffee. She doesn’t see you for the mistakes you made, the promotion you just got, or the recycling you forgot to take out. She doesn’t care about that bad haircut, those great teeth, or even that perfectly pressed shirt you’re wearing.
She only sees someone worthy of her attention in that moment, no questions asked.
When was the last time you approached a stranger this way: observing the person before you as who they are rather than who you perceive them to be? How often do we use what few visual clues we have to devise an identity for someone — their marital status, their job, their socioeconomic status, their ethnicity, what type of music they listen to, where they live, what they like to do for fun — before even exchanging a simple “hello”?
Our brains, having evolved to rely on shortcuts, are masters at drawing conclusions about the objects or beings before us in a matter of seconds. A 2014 study found that the brain immediately makes a determination about how trustworthy a face is before it’s even fully perceived. Fortunately, this has helped us to survive as a collective. (Go humans!) Unfortunately, it can result in our making poor, even harmful, misjudgments about the people around us.
It’s remarkable watching Lyla’s mind at work, proceeding without an agenda. What would it be like if we treated everyone we came into contact with as someone worthy of our time, be it a few seconds, a few minutes, or a few hours? What would it be like if we were more driven by our desire to connect rather than our tendency to build barriers?
I consider the instances when I’ve quickly dismissed someone as unhealthy because of their stature or entitled because of their tone of voice. I recall the faces in a crowd I’ve overlooked because I would never talk/ act/ dress like they would, or the ones I’ve favored because I consider them superior in some way. I think about the times I’ve been short with someone because I’ve already predicted what they’re going to say, or worse yet, I’ve said it for them.
I’m also reminded of all the times I’ve wanted to say “hi there” or “thank you” or “enjoy your day” but have stopped just shy of doing so, as if the words haven’t figured out a way to leave my lips; of when I’ve looked the other way instead of smiled at the person a mere few feet away.
I’d like to think these are relatively minor transgressions. Perhaps Lyla would think so too. But if we can’t look at the unfamiliar faces with whom we share a space as being inherently worth the fleeting moments we might spend with them, how far have we really come?
Imagine all the conversations that are never had, the compliments never offered, the laughter never produced. Picture your life without the people in it that at one point you allowed to take up the time and space that led to your meeting: your partner? Your best friend? Your neighbor? It’s hard to know how your trajectory might have changed; it’s impossible to know how theirs might have.
For now, Lyla and I still pause at every pair of feet we pass, hoping that the person to whom they belong will see in us what we see in them: the potential for a moment well-spent.