Updated: Aug 22, 2019
By Molly Murfee
I see them coming and begin preparing. I settle my energy down into my feet, grounding into the earth much like I would if interacting with a tentative bird. I pick up my chin to make sure I’m looking straight ahead, let me shoulders drop, my back relax. Soften my face and allow a smile to lift.
They’ve almost reached me. I always step off the trail first, because I figure I’m going to be better at finding a dirt patch or rock to teeter on during the interaction. And then, I watch. I watch people do all kinds of crazy things to avoid eye contact, to avoid getting too close.
Their eyes start rolling around desperately seeking something, anything, to look at other than me. Even though I’ve already stepped off the trail to let them pass, many take wide arcs, trampling flowers in their wake, frantically trying to get as far away from me as possible. They have a hurried, scuttling manner, much like trying to scurry past a sleeping lion without being noticed.
“Please,” I say as sweetly as I can muster, “Step on the trail, it’s better for the plants.”
Whereupon they stare at me with a wavering, queasy half-smile, tentatively tip a toe onto the dirt path, and rush frantically past as if someone just lit their butt on fire.
It would be a hilarious dance, if it wasn’t so frustrating.
Passing on the trail requires us to get within inches of each other. Eek! Sort of a funny phenomenon, considering the vast majority of people around the globe live in cities and are therefore presumably used to proximity - on the road, in neighborhoods, at the grocery, on the bus.
But the trail is different. It’s just you, and that one other person (or several if it’s a group) in the wild and wooly world of nature. You can’t fade into anonymity when face to face with another human being without a million others around to distract from the uncomfortable proximity. Squeezing past each other is such a close encounter you might actually (gasp!) brush against each other’s skin. Oh the horror.
I understand wanting a little elbow room. There are reasons I live here, and one of the most dominant is space. I like a lot of it. Millions of acres of it, as it turns out. I crave wide open spaces where not another soul save the red-tail hawk circling me overhead is visible. It is in these desolate places I feel like I can finally breathe.
Encountering another human on the trail, however, is a time to get tight. Staying on route means preserving the very things you came to see here in the first place – like the flowers, and green growing things. Who woulda thunk, but green growing things don’t like being repetitively stepped on very much. The aversion to being crushed is so deep, they in fact die from it.
The experience is puzzling to me. I watch the drama unfold, curious as to what the hell makes us so damn afraid of our own species in a place so innocuous as a mountain trail.
Turns out, there’s lots of potential reasons, and most of them are based in fear.
We have nurtured a fear-based society. We are afraid of everything. We are afraid of unavoidable things like germs and death and weather. We’re constantly afraid that something, somewhere is gonna git us. But most of all, we seem to be afraid of each other. Strangers, we’re taught, are dangerous. Don’t even look them in the eye.
Christopher K. Hsu writes of “approach aversion” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It all goes back to our tiger-fighting days when our little brains were constantly searching for what was going to hurt us so that we could avoid those things and live to see another day. The survivalist instinct created what scientists now call the “negativity bias.” We more naturally focus on potential harm, rather than benefit.
Any oncoming object, hypothesizes Hsu, emulates an approaching tiger, and that’s an eminent threat. Our brains haven’t evolved quickly enough to recognize what is an actual danger or just a perceived one. In this scenario we panic, plowing over paintbrush and penstemon in our effort to get away from each other.
Social anxiety experts tell us, again harkening back to our more tribal ancestry, looking someone of a higher status in the eye could get you killed or kicked out of the tribe. The modern rendition of this is that we’ve become self-conscious, overly aware of being the object of another’s mind, afraid of being judged. In the trail scenario we might be additionally unsure of what the proper protocol is, and therefore terrified of looking foolish. So we blunder about in the foliage like clowns with oversized shoes.
From a different angle, a study by Kent State reports that us modern hominids spend about six hours a day on our phones, sending an average of 265 texts in that time. The irony of this nauseating situation is that these exchanges aren’t making us feel more connected. In fact, they do the opposite. Study upon study reveals our social dependency on technology makes us less social, more interested in our online lives than the real ones at the end of our noses. We are more distracted, less satisfied, amplifying our stress levels while simultaneously killing our ability to communicate.
We have gotten so bad, in fact, at naturally knowing how to say “hi” to one another, there are a whole slew of published articles on how to greet another human on the trail. In my research I ran into a “social artist” who made an entire career project of videoing the reactions of people when he greeted them on the street.
We’ve become insulated, imprisoned in our constant habitation of our boxes of cars and houses and screens, afraid of the vulnerability that arises when meeting face to face, enmeshed in our adamantly independent strivings. We’ve become so focused on our own comfort, we’re willing to trample all over the planet, just to satiate our own immediate needs.
On a local level I worry about the plants, because I love them, and want them to survive the onslaught of footsteps misplaced upon their backs because humans are afraid to get close to each other. It breaks my heart to watch a trail that used to be a mere foot wide, grow to 10 feet across, or “ghost trails” appear parallel to the original, from such anxiety-filled reactions.
But what I worry about on a perhaps even larger scale is what this says about our direction as a society. I am worried about what is says about our ability to communicate, to problem solve, to be kind, to be close. I worry about our ability to be vulnerable, or open, or even just downright friendly to each other.
I worry that if we cannot even figure out how to pass each other on a trail, an interaction that one must endure for a few seconds at best, what that says about our long-term tenacity to tackle even larger issues like income inequality, racism, or our assumptive addiction to war as a viable means to solve conflict.
And so I encourage you, both physically and metaphorically – make your footprint small, step aside only on the durable surfaces that can sustain your weight such as dirt or rock. Pick your head up, look your fellow human in the eye, and simply say “hello.” In these divisive times, this, at least, is a start.
The future of humanity and the planet, as well as the flowers at your feet, will thank you.