The Lost Art of Connection

Hadley Smith

Remember when you were little and every time you saw a handprint you’d put your hand up to match it? Often your hand was too small, occasionally too big. Sometimes it was simply the wrong shape. But sometimes it would fit like a key to a lock, as perfectly as fate, and you’d get a rush of excitement. You had something in common with the owner of this hand, this person you might never know: your hands matched! 

For some reason, we stop doing this when we get older. Do we stop caring about connection with strangers? Do we just not want to seem silly? I don’t think the excitement of when our hands match will ever completely fade, no matter what we might pretend.

Around 45,000 years ago, people of the past began painting their handprints on cave walls. They are photo negatives, the shape of hands set into bursts of color, red and black and white. They appear to press outward from within the rock, like ghostly handprints on foggy glass. They are the closest things we have to photos of the past people. 

We consider the creators of these handprints to be so different from us. In many ways, they were. They lived in caves and hunted for their food and undoubtedly held beliefs we would find foreign and ridiculous. And yet, their hands were just like ours! If we stumbled upon them with no background knowledge, we might mistake the prints for modern graffiti. We could go to the cave and put our hands over their handprints, and some of them would match. We could touch the exact same spot a person touched so long ago, like we’re high-fiving through time. And if our hands happened to be the same size and shape, then we would have something in common with this past person, this person we thought was so different from ourselves. I would love it if my hand matched with a past person’s. I think the past person would‘ve loved it, too.

It seems that when people have worldviews different from our own, we don’t consider the reasons behind their beliefs. Everybody has a unique perspective, and every person we pass on the street has a life as complex as our own. If we make eye contact with someone, they see us. We forget this sometimes. The past people had lives. They loved and mourned and celebrated just like us. They had reasons for painting their handprints on the wall. 

These reasons may be foreign to us, but the process isn’t. The prints were created by blowing pigment out of bone pipes, like spray paint. When a past person blew out the paint, it would’ve felt cold on their hand. It would’ve coated their skin and the rock around it with black or red or yellow or white, a shapeless blob of color—and then would come the ever-so-satisfying moment when they lifted their hand to create a crisp, perfect handprint. The creator of this handprint would’ve stepped back, tilted their head, admired their creation. Perhaps they would’ve proudly pointed it out to their friends. It seems the past people weren’t so different from us, after all.

We live in a society of differences: gay and straight, black and white, democratic and republican. Differences are awesome—they’re what make us all so interesting. But sometimes we forget the similarities. Handprints look the same no matter the color of our skin, what we believe, and whom we love. If two contrasting people from different sides of the world put their hands together, they could match up. 

We don’t have to agree with another person’s beliefs or actions. All we have to do is remember that this other person thinks, too, and try to find something that we do have in common. This could be anything. It doesn’t have to be something boring like a favorite color. It could be an experience, a sense of humor, a love of music—even a mutual interest in connecting with each other would suffice. If we approach new people believing we will find something, it’ll reveal itself. Often, it isn’t as hard to find as we might think.

Take, for example, the following incident. 

Late one night, my dad and I were driving home from Home Depot. We’d bought a crazy stuffed rabbit on a tricycle. When you pressed a button, its eyes glowed red and it cackled and it rode in a circle. It was terrifying. It was absurd. It was awesome. We simply had to buy it. 

I was holding it on my lap while we were stopped at a light. I kept wishing the guy in the car next to us would look over. Finally, he did, and I held the rabbit up and pressed the button. I couldn’t hear him, but I could see him laughing. He thought it was awesome, too. I grinned and shot him a thumbs up, and he returned it, grinning back. The light changed and we drove our separate ways. 

I’ll probably never see him again, but we’ll always have the rabbit in common. Maybe someday he’ll see a creepy rabbit somewhere else and think of the girl in the next car over, holding up a stuffed rabbit to show a stranger for no reason other than to make him laugh. You’re out there somewhere, Rabbit Man. 

By all appearances, we had nothing in common. We were two random people, thrown together for an instant by chance. I’ve sat next to countless people waiting for traffic lights and never given them a second thought, but for some reason, the Rabbit Man and I clicked. Did I create the connection by showing him the rabbit, or was the potential already there, just waiting for a spark to ignite it? If I had shown the rabbit to someone at a different stoplight, perhaps I would’ve connected with them, too. There are countless people out there that I will never know now, that I could’ve been friends with if only I’d had the courage to initiate contact. 

People are conditioned to be subdued, and it’s causing a disconnect in our society. We are told from the time we can walk never to talk to strangers. We are taught to keep our heads down, to go about our business quietly without bothering others. We are raised to assume that any unnecessary contact with strangers is unwanted. It’s a wonder we manage to make any friends at all with this mindset. Many people are perfectly open to talking to strangers in their day to day life. It’s just that they, too, have been conditioned to keep their silence.

We all walk around with our carefully sculpted personas, trying to look like we’ve got it together, because we think we’re the only ones who are lost. It’s time to quit worrying so much about what’s normal. No one actually knows what they’re doing. We’re all just blundering around pretending to be in control, doing the best we can and screwing up sometimes. It’s refreshing to see someone stop pretending and simply live. When someone shows us their new light-up rabbit just because they’re excited about it, it’s like they’re saying, We’re all totally and completely lost together, so let’s at least have some fun! We can relate to that, because we’re no exception. We can realize the hilarious absurdity of the world, if only for a moment. 

This is life, not prom, and it’s passing us by. Live a little! Wave at cars you don’t know. Complement old ladies’ handbags. Grin at people and mean it, and most people will grin back. Maybe you’ll connect with a person and maybe you won’t, but at least you will have tried. Deep down, we know that this is the way we should be living. The yearning for connection runs in our blood, as old as time, from long before the age of cave art and fire. For better or for worse, we’re all in this together, so we might as well share it.   

After all, we all have the same handprints.