I looked terrible. I think I hadn't showered in a couple of days. I was wearing a baggy sweatshirt and stained green pants. My hair was in a ponytail. Glasses. No make-up. And I was about 75 cents short for a half gallon of milk, with, I knew, probably no more cash at home. I was so embarrassed. I must have looked like a homeless person. Except I was obviously one of those white kids who live in the loft apartments down the street, better off than most of the low-income families in the neighborhood who come into this dusty bodega to buy sandwiches and lotto tickets. I would never buy a sandwich here.
"I'll bring it by later and pick up the milk," I said lamely to the Middle Eastern guy behind the counter, pushing the carton back toward him. I have lived in this neighborhood for more than two years and I still sometimes feel self-conscious coming into this deli, walking past the men hanging at the lotto counter, on my way to buy a six-pack, or a container of orange juice that I always suspect will be sour.
The guy smiled at me, putting the milk in a black plastic bag and pushing it back toward me. "It's okay," he said. "Take the milk. Come back later." I took it. I was surpised at how much this simple generosity meant to me. At home I scrounged around for a few more quarters, and I brought it to the deli after lunch. I made sure he saw me putting the money on the counter, and we smiled at each other.
What is a moment of connection worth? That day I was a member of a neighborhood I'd felt only vaguely part of for more than two years. I felt like I'd been understood. It happened a week ago. I'm still savoring it.
It reminded me of something I'd already been turning over in my mind for about a month. It was a moment in an interview with Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, the economist who says in his book, "The End of Poverty," that we as a global community have the resources and the knowledge to make extreme poverty a thing all of our grandchildren see only in museums. The guy interviewing him asked something to this effect: So ... what's stopping us?
"Public understanding," Dr. Sachs said. Firmly. No hesitation.
Understanding. Not red tape, not laziness, not something overwhelmingly difficult, not a bizarre economic theorum only the highly educated can fathom. Public understanding. That means not just an understanding that something -- many things -- can and are being done to end extreme poverty, but that they should be done. The public understanding that people dying of hunger and the absolute lack of basic supplies and resources are not different from the wealthy or the middle class or the working poor. They're not "other." They can be connected with.
That notion of public understanding just keeps resonating for me--a vast, deep, ultimately personal understanding that one person suffering the worst fate on the planet is as human and weird and loving and vulnerable as I am--rippling out and engulfing every problem in this chaotic world, from interactions at the corner deli in my small, mixed neighborhood in Brooklyn, to the Mideast peace talks happening now in Annapolis.
How do we develop that understanding worldwide, make it ripple out globally, catch on like a virus whose main symptom is peace?
By making connections, one after another. What are your closest relationships built on? Your simplest ones? All on moments of connection. Moments of recognizing in the other person a similarity to you. However slight. However deep. It's easy to assume that we can't really connect with people outside our daily circle of friends and family, people we have obvious things in common with. And yet, we can. In fact, if you're using the Internet to read this column -- heck, if you've experienced storytelling in any form -- I'm sure you have connected with a stranger in a deep and unexpectedly moving way.
Getting this world wired up and online was the single most powerful gift of the technological revolution. So far we've all been using it clumsily, playfully, mostly for marketing or gossip or shopping or romance. It's a shiny new tool and we're chewing on it like toddlers, curious and enjoying it but not yet able to use it to its full potential, or even grasp what the potential is.
Here's what I think: The ultimate, full potential of all this new media is a fully connected, thoroughly peaceful world. A world in which we make meaningful, powerful connections with each other rapid-fire, every day, building and re-building and deepening a dense map of connection in a way that simply was not possible before. A world in which forgiveness and peace are a far, far more powerful part of our interactions than violence and conflict. In which we experience extreme poverty and war in museums, and experience continued movement toward peace in daily life.
I have one other story for you: After signing up to sponsor a woman survivor of war through Women for Women, an organization I heard about on the radio and learned much more about and joined online, I received in the mail an envelope with a picture of Abigail, my new "sister" in Nigeria. I looked at her face and read her answers to her questionaire: Married. Civil ceremony. Four children, all in school. Wants to start a business with the money I send her.
Oh my God, I thought. I know someone in Nigeria!
That moment of connection with my Nigerian sister, the moment in the bodega, the moments that happen while watching videos like these -- people talking about their lives as part of The Washington Post's wonderful OnBeing project -- these are all being facilitated and multiplied and made more and more accessible all the time because the world is wired. Because we can finally all talk to each other. We're on the cusp of world peace, because we are holding the tool that enables instant, potentially deep, and increasingly meaningful connection. We are making giant steps toward the end to extreme poverty, the end to violent conflct, the end to meaningless suffering, just by connecting with people we would never otherwise have known as people.
Imagine throughout your day: You are part of a world full of individuals as real as yourself. Imagine one person whom you will never, ever meet, simply because of geography. Think of that person as similar to you. Imagine him or her falling in love, feeling heartbreak, loving a mother or a son, suffering disappointment, feeling terrified, feeling comforted. We've been capable of this understanding of each other all along. And now, for the first time in human history, we have this completely real, electrified, wired ability to reach out and spark deep understanding in a string of connections worldwide.
Welcome to the beginning of world peace. Let's keep moving toward it.
Liz was co-founder of HumanKind Media. You can read about her here.