By Amanda Lederman
These days, the world can feel like a lonely place, especially when you live in New York City. You are constantly surrounded by people, yet no one stops to talk to each other. In fact, if someone tried to speak to you on the sidewalk, you’d probably think they were crazy and avoid them. I certainly felt this way until I came across Shannon Zuber’s Instagram.
Inspired by #VOTY Winner Cleo Wade, Shannon set up a table in a buzzing NYC park and welcomed strangers with an open heart, a seat beside her, and three simple words: “Are you ok?” Her goal was simple: To love. To connect. To heal. I spoke with Shannon and was incredibly inspired by her mission and the positive impact she is leaving on the typically aloof New York community. I connected with her last week to chat and I encourage you to read about her story below and pay her a visit sometime. She’ll be a rainbow on your cloudy day; she’s certainly a rainbow on mine.
Tell us a little about yourself and your cause.
I realized pretty early on in my life that love, and spreading it, were the two most important things. Last summer, inspired by Cleo Wade, I grabbed a table, chairs, and a sign reading “Are you okay? Free peaceful and loving conversation” and set up shop in a busy park in New York City. I told the people who approached me that I was no expert, in no way qualified to give medical or clinical mental health advice, but my heart was open and I was there to listen to anything they wanted to talk about. The goal was human connection. Some people talked about their days, some about the heavy things they were carrying.
How were you inspired by Cleo Wade? Who/what else inspired you to start this project?
Last summer I, like so many other people, was feeling the weight of the sometimes scary world that we were living in. It’s anxiety inducing and lonely. I’ve struggled most my life with mental health issues and am so fortunate to have, when I wanted it, an amazing support system. But I realized not everyone who wants one has one. And how being asked “are you okay?” by someone who genuinely means it is sometimes all that matters. As I was turning all of this over in my head, I saw a post on social media from artist and author Cleo Wade, someone who continuously moves in movements and leads with love. I really admire her. I saw that she had done something similar — set up a booth and fostered judgement-free conversation with those who chose to share their stories. It all came together for me — I put my own spin on it and ran with her idea.
Why is human connection so important?
I’ve always been a firm believer in the value of “how are you doing?” over “what are you doing?” and in a society like this, that gets buried. We are all (me included) so wrapped up in our own lives. When I really thought about it, I found it quite rare that people were connecting when there was nothing to be gained. Networking events, dates or meetings were common practice, but what about talking to people for the sake of talking to people? I set out thinking this was an act that was purely for others, but I ended up learning and gaining the most that day.
What was the most memorable conversation you had last year?
At my first booth, I met a man named Scott. He was riding his bike near the park, saw me and stopped. We had a conversation, similarly to the ones I’d been having all day, but at the end, he expressed that he too was looking for a way to contextualize his empathy and connect. He asked to join me for the next one. So a few months later, I called him up and we sat in the park together. Here was a man from a different walk of life who I would otherwise never have known, but we now shared this super powerful common experience. It kind of brought everything full circle.
This is not your full time job. How do you balance work, life, and giving back to others?
Balance is an art! At the end of the day, though, it’s important to make time for what matters most. I am fortunate enough to love my full time job, but it’s equally as important to spend time with the people in my life and do things, like this, that I am really passionate about.
How can others contribute to your cause?
The underlying goal here comes down, simply, to the importance of human kindness. There are so many small ways to open your heart and manifest that light — be it checking in on your friends or asking your waitress how he/she is doing today. Come have a conversation with me — the next one will be on Saturday, June 29 in Madison Square Park, but I will post about all upcoming on my Instagram page. And if you feel inspired, set up shop in your own city! There can never be too much love in this world.
Are you ok?
Some days yes, some days no. But that is okay! For me, coping comes down to listening to my body and honoring what it needs to heal. And asking for help on the really hard days! It took a while to open up to friends and family, but I’m so glad I did. Sharing the burden, be it with a trusted love one or a stranger in the park, can lighten the load and give way to healing.
Shannon will be at Madison Square Park at 11 AM this Saturday, June 29th, make sure to stop by and pay her a visit — it’s worth it.