Last night, as I was sitting in the Maple Leaf Lounge waiting for my flight home to Vancouver, I was thinking to myself that this was, very likely, the last work trip I would be taking in a while. Over the past few weeks, one storytelling workshop or speaking engagement after another was being cancelled or postponed: rightly so. Such is life in the wake of a global pandemic.
But while I sat there feeling slightly sorry for myself and my bottom line, I noticed something wonderful happening that I had not seen in a long, long time – strangers in the lounge were talking to each other. In my own little corner of Newark Liberty Airport, two businessmen who had arrived at different times started conversing. Shortly after, another road warrior approached the seat next to me, smiled, and after sitting down asked, “Heading home or fleeing town?” “Both,” I replied.
I consider myself a relatively social person. But at the end of a long workday, I don’t typically invite nor engage in conversation with strangers. Still, the next thing I knew, my neighbour and I were discussing cancelled events, working from home, and the fact that this was very likely our last work trip for several months. We both observed how it felt like we were catching the final flight home before authorities shut down the borders, and there was something both nerve-racking and slightly exhilarating about that fact.
And as our conversation shamefully turned to our potentially not making Air Canada’s highest tier status this year (#firstworldproblems), the two businessmen across from us joined into the discussion. We four strangers commiserated, compared stats, and talked about the need to stay “Warren Buffet calm” while we watched our 401K’s and RRSP’s dwindle.
When I got up to go to the bathroom, I noticed lots of others in the lounge still talking with their neighbours. I thought to myself that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen such fellowship amongst strangers: like war buddies hunkered down in a foxhole waiting for an impending enemy charge. Nervous anticipation was in the air, but it was buoyed by a strong sense of camaraderie and social connection.
This sensation extended even further as I was diligently washing my hands after using the facilities, standing between two other gentlemen doing the same. With only the sound of running water and hand wringing to accompany us, I started humming, out loud, the second of the two reprieves of “Happy Birthday” I now go through to make sure I’m washing my hands thoroughly.
To my delight, the other two gentlemen beside me joined in: not boisterously, but noticeably enough that we were all, just for a moment, in it together. As we three grabbed paper towels, I remarked that I had no fingerprints left, so dry had my hands become from the constant washing and sanitizing. Another remarked that he now felt like a surgeon scrubbing in every time he washed his hands. And the third commented quietly, “Our mothers would be proud.”
Thirty minutes or so later, we all got up to board our flight, a band of individuals each just trying to get home safe and uninfected to our families, but collectively all feeling like we were part of something bigger than ourselves. And as we boarded and found our seats on a remarkably empty plane, I realized how connected I felt to the people around me. It wasn’t quite love (as the title of this post might suggest), but it was most definitely a bond, even if momentary.
I posted that observation on social media before we pushed back from the gate. Shortly after, my dear friend, Susan, replied that the situation was starting to remind her of New York City right after 9/11, “where strangers would spontaneously hug each other on the street.” “It’s a similar feeling,” she remarked, “but of course now without the hugging.”
In this time of crisis, in this time of great uncertainty and unease, we were all in the same boat, together: each of us sailing towards the horizon, unsure of what it might reveal. And naturally — because I can’t seem to check my storytelling mind, even for a moment as I watch my business stall — I thought to myself that this it not only a story we might tell, but also and importantly a story we are experiencing with others. And it reminded me of how powerful and potent a collective story, lived and told by many, can be.
So in this time of uncertainty and concern, when we retreat by instinct or command to our own respective corners of the world, I encourage you to seek out the communal, now more than ever before. Yes, maintain safe social distancing. But if you can’t be together physically, then find a way to do so virtually. Remember that what unites us is far greater than what divides or distinguishes us. But also remember that in times of unease, we want, we need that unity.
And most of all, when this pandemic wanes (as it undoubtedly will), I implore you to not forget the sense of camaraderie and collective that COVID-19 has created in us. Carry that with you moving forward, even as the danger of infection retreats. It could make a world of difference towards fostering and sustaining a different world.
And, out of respect and deference to our mothers and all the mothers who birthed them, for God’s sake, keep washing your hands. 🙂
Bill Baker is the founder and principal of BB&Co Strategic Storytelling. For over 12 years, BB&Co has been providing Leadership Through Storytelling training to companies and organizations such as Coca-Cola, Cisco, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, Prudential, Dell and others, helping their people understand how to use storytelling to improve the impact of their communications and with that, their ability to persuade, engage, and inspire others.