09/28/2016 12:14 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2017

What I Learned From The Homeless Man Under The Bridge

I was out for my usual morning run and found myself stumbling through the late-summer heat, wishing I had taken a water bottle. I stopped under a bridge for a moment of shade and as I leaned over to catch my breath, I saw two young, scruffy men standing next to their sleeping bags. One smiled and gently raised his hand as if motioning "hello" but didn't say a word. He wasn't asking for anything. I smiled and made the same motion back to him.

As I started back on my run, I thought about how much we all crave connection. In that moment, this homeless man seemed to want to connect more than he wanted food or money.

Although it costs us nothing, we often talk ourselves out of connecting. We see an attractive person and look away instead of smiling. There is a colleague whom we'd love to get to know but we don't ask him or her to lunch because they seem too important or busy. We're on an elevator and instead of turning towards a stranger, we turn away and look at our device, even though we both know there is no Wi-Fi in the elevator.

We have all had experiences of feeling separate and lonely. I have felt lonely being in a relationship that was void of emotional connection. I have felt lonely working in a group of people who aren't stepping up to own their part of the project. Feeling separation doesn't have anything to do with being alone vs. being with people -- it is about the human desire to feel connected by being seen, heard and valued by another person.

If your tendency is to spend time alone, practice saying yes to invitations. If you work as a solopreneur, try going to a new coffee shop to work and say hello and smile to as many people as you can. If you are in a department of a big company, look for reasons to visit other departments and make connections with people whom you otherwise don't encounter. Practice moving towards rather than away from people.

We all benefit from connection. That homeless man impacted my day. After encountering him, I felt more grateful -- appreciating all that I have. He triggered my compassion -- I found myself feeling empathy for him. I had the choice to move towards separation or connection. Were there many ways in which he and I are very different? Absolutely! Are there many ways in which we are alike! Absolutely! I can reflect on times in my life that like him, I was in a situation I had never anticipated, times that I felt broke, times that I felt at a low point. And as he may have been feeling this morning, times when I needed someone to stop and acknowledge me.

We always have a choice as to whether we move towards separation or connection. Separation is looking at the homeless person and focusing on how unkempt he looks, and criticizing why he has a 7-11 Slurpee cup if he is out of money. Separation is thinking that I am better than him and feeling smug that I'd never end up in that situation. Separation is berating him (in my thoughts) about why he doesn't go out and get a job. Connection, on the other hand is acknowledging that I've had times that I was under-performing, not living up to my potential and taking the path of least effort. Connection is being aware that both of us are using the running path, both of us enjoy being in the shade under the bridge, both of us are Colorado residents, Americans, and both of us are human. Connection is acknowledging that he impacted my day by reaching out to me.

Pay attention today and notice whether you tend to move towards separation or towards connection. Pay attention today and notice whether that is working well for you.