So, I’m standing there at this bakery in Costa Rica, trying not to order the things one orders at a bakery, because if I order bakery-like things from this bakery, I might as well give my stomach pooch full on permission to never, ever fucking go away. And then what will become of me? Forget the fear of becoming a cat lady; I’m far more terrified of becoming an angry, bitter old wench who could never stand to look at her own belly button again. First world problems, you know?
So, me and this bakery. We’re cool. We’re cool because I’m ordering nothing more than a coffee as I prepare to set off to explore a remote village in the middle of a Central American rainforest. Isn’t that what everybody does on the weekends?
I’m standing there in my yoga pants, minding my business—by which I mean artfully trying to ignore the backpacker couple standing next to me, because if I have to tell one more person the story of why I’m there, or how I make money, or how I manage to stand the humidity, I might just have to start making things up for my own entertainment. You know, go full on Rambo about it.
I’m studying the mating habits of monkeys!
I’m on the run from the Russian mob!
I’m building teepees for humanity!
Anddddddd just as my imagination began to wander, that’s when it happened.
“Hi, I’m Phillip!”
He said it with such an air of innocence, as if striking up conversations with strangers in bakeries were the most natural thing in the world.
“This is Christy,” he introduces his wife. “We’re from Alaska!”
Phillip had a blue-eyed baby on his back, too, also named Phillip. You could tell these were the sorts of folks who lend their neighbors sugar and say “fudge” when they stub their toe.
As I reluctantly strike up a conversation with the backpacking couple from Alaska (these are the worst kind to tell about The Middle Finger Project, mind you), a thousand thoughts cross through my mind, but the loudest one of all?
Stop being such an asshole, Ash. ENGAGE.
But the more the backpacking couple from Alaska kept talking, the more I felt my eyes darting to the counter, hoping that my coffee would hurry the love up. Why was I resisting this connection so much? What was the problem?
Now, I’ll admit: Because I engage people for a living, when it’s the weekend and I’m in a lonely little coffee shop buying a lonely little coffee so I can head out to the middle of the rainforest for some total disconnect time, all I want to do is UNENGAGE. I want to drown out the world with its manufactured pleasantries and social exchanges and just stand there in line staring at the jar of straws and just BE.
But more than that, I realized that the real reason I was avoiding a conversation with the backpacking couple from Alaska was something else:
I was getting hard.
Not that kind of hard, you guys—the kind of hard that comes with living in cities and traveling the world and growing businesses and seeing bad things and dealing with bad people.
If you’re not careful, being guarded can start to make you act guarded.
It was the same kind of guarded I used to hate about getting into elevators with Chileans when I lived in Santiago; everyone would ignore one another put on this iron face of indifference. And there was me, bopping along to the beat in my ear buds, trying so hard to smile and make a connection with every single person who entered…only to be rejected, time and time again. After a while, it was as if I was the weird one. After a while, smiling at strangers felt naive; silly; childish.
And, admittedly, when Phillip the Alaskan boomed into the coffee shop wanting to be friends, I thought he was naive. You’ve clearly never lived a day in the real world, buddy, I thought.
But mid conversation, it became clear to me that Phillip & Christy weren’t naive:
Because the fact is that no matter what you’ve seen, what you’ve experienced, what you know…wisdom cannot rob you of choice.
It is a choice to be kind.
It is a choice to be friendly.
It is a choice to be open.
It is a choice to offer a smile.
And it is a choice to offer yourself.
Over and over again, with every new interaction you have.
And it’s up to us how we choose.
Because while being guarded might protect our fears, being open might release them. Maybe being hardened doesn’t mean we have to act hard.
“Here’s my number,” I finally wrote on a piece of paper, before I left.
“Call me if you need anything—even just directions.”
As I watched Phillip and Christy walk hand-in-hand down the Costa Rican sidewalk, I smiled and then turned back to the barista.
“On second thought, I’ll take a ham and cheese panini.”
Because living life is a choice, too.
And when life comes dripping in mozzarella?
You say yes.