Nobody really knows who penned the phrase, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”  These words originally appeared as the first line to a poem published in 1602 by, ironically, a composer so apparently absent from the world that nobody actually knew his name, let alone the true fondness of his heart.

I’m not a big fan of that over-used cliché.  I’m more inclined to agree with a friend of mine, who said that absence just makes the heart grow fungus.  But the more I reflect on the world, I’ve come to believe that what absence really grows is anonymity.  Because we do not get out enough, we do not know one another.

In the suburbs we hole up in our gated communities of apathy and isolation; in the inner city, we view the world through barred windows and peep holes, under the heavy cloud of suspicion.  Whether out of fear or indifference, we do not get out enough.  We live most of our lives in bunkers, safe from the rest of the world.  We do our shopping online to avoid the crowds; we stream our videos to avoid the congested theater.  Without ever leaving the house, we pursue our college degrees under the faint glow of a computer screen, in the casual comfort of our pajamas.  Local parks lie empty as we retreat to the seclusion and security of our ever-verdant backyards.

The consequence is that we are living increasingly anonymous, isolated lives.  Everyone outside our immediate tribe is a stranger.  The middle-aged man who works five cubicles down from us on the third floor, the single mom whose fourth-grader plays shortstop on our son’s Little League team, the young woman who bags our groceries at the super market, the old man who flips newspapers on our driveway each morning – chances are we do not even know their names, let alone the aches and awes of their life stories.  They can stand so near to us that we rub shoulders with them in the elevator, but even physical proximity does not bridge the emotional, spiritual, psychic chasm that pervades our social experience.  And yet, as Det. Graham Waters says in the movie, Crash:

“Its the sense of touch… nobody touches you.  We’re always behind this metal and glass.  I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.”

If we really want to feel something, then there are, of course, better alternatives than crashing into one another.  Only I do not believe the prescription we need calls for mere gestures of politeness, or so-called random acts of kindness, or even a greater adherence to the Golden Rule.  The solution to the distance we feel between one another – the antidote to anonymity – is not to do more, but to get out more, because the opposite of absence is not action, but genuine presence.  The truth is that, while we can do unto others as we would have them do unto us, doing so does not necessary imply that our heart will have grown any fonder for them.  In the end, the cure to the isolation and anonymity that plagues us begins in the moment when the stranger becomes a friend and we discover that we belong to a neighborhood.

It was on a recent visit to Watts Towers with friends that a local resident of that community – the epicenter of violence in the 1960’s during the Watts Riots – rolled in on his bicycle and struck up a conversation with a few of us.  He shared with us about his faith, his family, his pride for his revitalized community.  When someone in our group shared with him that she had lived in Southern California her entire life but had never before been to Watts, he shook his head and said, “Baby, you need to get out more.”

He was, of course, absolutely right.  We need to get out more.

His name, by the way, was Levon.