Until Ivan came along.
Ivan is a year and a half now, and he doesn't have stranger anxiety. He loves to run up to random people and give them great big hugs. And this has really changed the way we interact with others, and the way others interact with us. Recently, at Trader Joe's, a quiet, stern young guy rang up our huge cartful of groceries. Ivan was getting super antsy, so my husband Ryan took him out of the cart and let him walk around a bit. The next thing you know, Ivan ran behind the cash register and hugged the guy's legs, looking up at him with a huge grin. The guy, who had kind of intimidated me, instantly warmed up and started laughing. He said to Ivan, "You're so cool, little dude!" and pulled some stickers out to give to him. The energy instantly shifted, and we were all smiling and laughing. He turned out not to be as stern as I'd assumed - he was probably just having a not-so-great day - and Ivan's bright, cheerful, open spontaneity totally made all of us happy.
Last week, we were at the park, and Ivan ran over to the bleachers. A man was sitting there alone, facing the sun, listening to music through a big pair of headphones. I couldn't tell if he was a Little League dad watching the game, or a homeless person, and in any event, I hoped Ivan wasn't going to disturb him. Sure enough, Ivan dashed over, lightening-quick. He patted the man on his leg to get his attention. I told Ivan to come along and leave him alone, but he didn't listen to me (selective hearing starts early). He reached his arms out and leaned in to the man (who turned out to be a Little League dad), giving him a giant hug. The man smiled, and he and Ivan chatted for a bit. When Ivan was ready to run off again, the man said to me, "You're really lucky. That is one awesome kid you've got there. He made my day." I was so moved I could have cried - but Ivan was running off somewhere else so I had to chase him. But I remembered it.
This has happened countless times, in many places, with many people - grumpy-looking couples who instantly brighten up when Ivan decides to climb into their laps, sweet old ladies whom Ivan reaches out to embrace at the grocery store, tourists at the observatory (as in photo above -and isn't it funny, he and Ivan kind of look alike!), people at the airport, and other kids, parents, and more. We know people in our neighborhood now, and neighbors who were formerly complete strangers are friends, and we look out for one another.
I know this won't last forever - soon Ivan will grow out of this stage, which is probably good, since, sadly, we have to protect our kids from strangers with candy. But he's helping me realize that I need to stop assuming things about people, and try and be more warm and welcoming myself. No matter how cold and indifferent we act, how wrapped up we are in our digital devices, we're all looking for personal love and acceptance. We all need warmth and friendliness. We're all in this together. Change starts one person at a time, and if each of us tries to be a little friendlier, maybe, eventually, the world will become a happier, more peaceful place. It's worth a try, at least.
Who knows, you just might make someone's day.