One of the saddest things in my life is when I look down on the streets from the 27th-floor of a luxury hotel adjacent to Tokyo Station - as I regularly have occasion to do - and see the people down there walking around (they really do look like insects), and the buses turning, and the cars stopping and going at the traffic signals (they really do look like toys). I can see construction workers in nearby buildings going about their business - slowly - and week after week I can measure their progress. I can watch window cleaners - some of them in scaffolds below me - take the entire day maneuvering their scaffolds out over the edge, descend and rise again cleaning the glass, and then re-maneuver into another position for another descent. Seeing these people means that I now know of their existence and that knowledge is now a part of my life. So I go home with a hole in my consciousness the size and shape of that knowledge, and the existence of a hole reminds me that no matter how social our species is, we still amidst a social wilderness as well. Our regular social intercourse creates firm holes, or slots that our friends and family fill. Other holes, like those dug at the beach by children, are quickly erased by the waves of time and short attention spans. Then, I see more unknown people and the cycle repeats.
Equally sad is when I pass by apartment buildings and condominiums at night in a train level with the windows. I can sometimes see inside at what the people are doing: a woman in the kitchen; silhouettes watching the TV; a figure in leotards stretching. I admit there is a degree of voyeurism to it. It’s a kind of a show. Who can blame me? People watching is a great pastime. But again, I travel home in the knowledge of those people’s existence, and with a corresponding hole in my psyche. Now I know them, but they don’t know me. This kind of observation contributes nothing to the confirmation of my own existence. Maybe there’s the sadness.
I see hundreds of people every day that I do not know. I do not meet them. I only see them in passing - on the streets, in the trains, in shops, etc. Where are they all going? Once I see them I cannot help but wonder about them and their lives and then miss them just a little after they are out of sight - until the waves of time erase them. So I am always reminded of The Monkees’ lyrics,
Mary, Mary, where ya goin’ to?
Mary, Mary, can I come, too?
This one thing I will vow ya,
I’d rather die than to live without ya.
Mary, Mary, where ya goin’ to?
and I sometimes hum it to myself walking around town.
Isn’t it true? There are more people in the world than any one of us can know, and the reality is that as adults our entire social world is composed of a couple hundred people at most out of the nearly seven-billion souls available. How long is your Christmas card list, or your E-mail address book? Despite the limits of our address books, we might take heart by boasting the statistical truth that everyone on the planet is connected by only about five degrees of separation: I know somebody (1) who knows somebody (2) who knows somebody (3) who knows somebody (4) who knows somebody (5), and that is sufficient to link me to every living person, and some deceased ones, too. Through five degrees of separation every one of us is connected to Marilyn Monroe, Tom Cruise, David Beckham, the Dalai Lama, my Mom, and so on. (Hey, everybody, I met one of the Dalai Lama’s brothers giving a lecture in Tokyomany years ago. So, if you know me then you are connected to the Dalai Lama by just three degrees of separation.)
How do we do it? How is it possible to break and make connections? There is too much tragedy in it, and not enough comedy. Friends grow up and move away. People have sex and then babies - lots and lots of sex, and lots of babies. Babies grow up too fast and then move away in turn. We’re always moving away. Like dust in the wind, moments and people - its important to put them together - are unrecoverable. So every passing stranger glimpsed from a distance counts as a tragic loss. Can’t we stay still for a while and better appreciate our fellows?