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  • Writer's pictureLianne van der Walt

Why I am here

We all want to matter, to be seen for who we are and for what we do with our life. Sharing emotions and life experiences connects us – it is part of our reason for being.

A recent Netflix series called ‘Alone’ highlighted this for me. It featured ten survival experts who are dropped off individually in remote locations on Canada’s Northern Vancouver Island. Despite their training and preparation for this challenge, they all struggled with the same issue - the isolation and separation from other people.

Apart from the obvious hardship of having to survive in extreme conditions with very little, the loss of human connection was for many the reason they could not continue. Alone, day after day, human contact soon became just as important as making fire and finding food and water.

We are social creatures, defined by our interactions with one another. So much of what we do every day relates to someone else. Picking up a coffee, acknowledging a passer-by, the teller at the grocery store, working with a colleague, a catch-up with a friend or a family get together - we are continually interacting and sharing experiences and emotions.

‘My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together’ ~ Archbishop Desmond Tutu

While on holiday in Ghent a few years ago, I had an experience with two strangers which made me think about how important our human connections really are.

My husband and I were sitting in a little café eating lunch after a busy morning exploring medieval churches and castle dungeons. A young man entered the café and sat down at a nearby table while we were looking at photos taken of the old town. An elderly lady sitting just a chair away moved closer and started talking to me in Flemish. I explained that I did not understand a word, but she continued with her story – undeterred as she waved her hands in the air. She wanted to see our photos and chatted away happily, unconcerned by the fact that I did not understand.

The young man could not resist our animated conversation and soon he too got up and came to sit at our small table. He also wanted to see our photos. He spoke a little broken English, “Zo – do you vant to know why I am heer?” he asked us beaming broadly. My husband is an introvert and was very uncomfortable with this invasion of our personal space. He started packing away his camera, preparing for a quiet but quick getaway.

The young man pulled out of his trench coat pocket, a small camera and insisted on showing us photos of a woman sleeping on a train. He spoke excitedly in German, explaining that she was his fiancé. He then started to take photos of the elderly lady next to us who watched him with fascination. With a few flicks on his camera he explained how he could edit these photos, converting them to sepia and chrome. Anton was not at all impressed and tried to get my attention to leave without being rude. I was having too much fun – I ignored his desperate gaze.

Not a moment later, the young man opened his jacket again and flashed a collection of ten cigars in their cylinders while offering me a “Fisherman’s Friend” lozenge. He pointed to a hospital band on his wrist and asked, “Do you vant to know vy I vas heer?” Not waiting for my answer, he pushed buttons on his camera and waved the screen at me. It was a video of a startled rabbit at night. This was my cue – I laughed a little too nervously as I gathered my bag, scarf, gloves, notebook and packets of touristy mementoes. He insisted I look at another picture of a group of people sitting at a bar and then he pointed to the photo of “Zie kleine hazie” (the small rabbit)

I began to see the story unfold. He had probably been celebrating his recent engagement to the lady on the train with friends at a bar. On their way home they had spotted a rabbit which they followed in hot pursuit. The chase must have ended badly as this was how he had come to land up in hospital. It had taken some imagination to piece the story together, but I was happy with the result as it now made sense.

In the mean-time, Anton had made it to the café door from where he called me. He threatened to leave me to find my own way back to the hotel if I stayed any longer. The old lady who had followed every word of our animated conversation looked visibly disappointed to see me get up to leave. I smiled at them both and in my best but still awful German, told them I had to leave as my husband was in a hurry to catch a train.

Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness; it has no taste’ ~ Charlotte Bronte

Ghent will always be memorable; the seductive smell of Belgian waffles, chocolate pralines, spicy ‘Speculoos’ and sweet ‘Cuberdons.’ The castles and fine Belgian lace – all of it made a lasting impression, but this ordinary encounter with two strangers made it most memorable of all.

This brief meeting between strangers reminded me of the yearning we all have to connect. We want to feel we belong to something more than just ourselves; we want to share our emotions and experiences and see that they matter. Ultimately, we want to know that our existence made a difference in someone’s life. Why else are we here?

My life cannot have been remarkable just for me – surely it must have meant something to someone else too?

‘When we seek for connection, we restore the world to wholeness. Our seemingly separate lives become meaningful as we discover how truly necessary, we are to each other’ ~ Margaret Wheatley

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