It’s worth meeting a hundred or a thousand strangers just for the chance to meet one extraordinary individual. I haven’t come across many of those in my life but there have been those opportunities when one meets another human being who simply inspires you.
I don’t take a lot of pictures of large groups of people — which I guess is why I picked this shot from 2003 in the Musee D’Orsay to go along with this post. The fact that it shows people milling around in a large open space kind of gets at what I’ve been thinking about.
As long as I’m not in a group of people I’ll start up a conversation with almost anyone. I don’t like groups and crowds, but I definitely like people. I talk to folks in the checkout line. I talk to folks at the next gas pump; other patients waiting in the doctor’s office; the family on the escalator in front of me. I make silly faces at little kids I catch looking at me; I wave at toddlers in restaurants; and I play peek-a-boo with infants on their parents shoulder when the parent is facing away from me and the infant is looking right at me. I know it’s silly but I do crave interaction with humans.
A lot of interactions are sort of non-starters. Nothing happens; you didn’t expect anything to happen and your expectation is fulfilled.
Other times you get a surprise. Recently Peg & I were standing behind a fellow in the grocery aisle who stepped back and bumped into our shopping cart. The first thing out of his mouth was some sort of comment (I forget the exact words) about “stepping off the the right” after which followed several sentences to make it clear that he was a political conservative. After that interaction I wondered what kind of person it is that has to make sure his political standing is THE FIRST thing you know about him?
But that’s not the kind of thing I was thinking about to bring about this blog post…
Every once in a while you meet someone who is intensely humane; their way of talking, their obvious care about others, a certain softness towards the world just shines forth. I love it when I just happen to meet someone who really cares about people. Or perhaps it’s someone who is particularly insightful. You are in the middle of a casual conversation and out of their mouth drops a gem of insight about whatever you were talking about. It’s a gift of wisdom you never asked for. And sometimes it might stay with you for months or even years. I know I have been fortunate enough to have quite a few people drop unintended wisdom in my lap which after testing and proving have stayed with me for decades! And they aren’t always from friends.
I was talking with a business adversary once and he said, “You know, you’re problem is that you know your own story too well.” I was taken aback that day and while I wanted to forget I’d even heard the words they haunted me for a long while and I found over time I actually changed the way I interact with people because of a simple comment from someone who disagreed with me vehemently about a matter of policy over which I had no control.
Sometimes the person we “meet” we may not even speak with. I’m fascinated by watching adults with children. You can tell instantly who is interacting because they choose to be there, and who is interacting because “it’s their turn,” or their partner is otherwise occupied, or they just have to do it for X more minutes and then they are done. Kids bring out the honesty in adults — I doubt most adults realize how quickly a kid can twig an adults true feeling about spending time together. And those adults who really enjoy being with kids always light up when they’re around little ones.
It pays to be a good observer of people. You can save yourself a lot of grief and pain if you can learn from the mistakes of others; or ease the life of someone. In my own life I’ve found that the times someone misuses me mean much less to me if I have been able to help someone else. The satisfaction of helping someone else seems to dilute any meanness aimed at myself. Maybe that’s why I’ve always loved the idea of volunteerism. Helping others insulates me from the worst that’s to be found in the world.
One of the greatest treats for me has been those rare opportunities when I’ve been able to watch someone else see the lightbulb over their head. By this I don’t mean that you actually cause the light to go on, I’m talking rather about those moments when you can observe in someone else’s eyes the fact that they just “got it.” While teaching an English as Second Language student — and that word they always struggle with suddnely makes sense. When a mathematical concept makes sense. When the connection between a social program and their own need rings a bell. There are gazillions of these things happening but that sudden light in their eyes when something that has been hidden, obscure, and elusive finally makes sense — that’s worth almost anything it might cost. To see a moment of illumination!
I’m conscious that our life here in Milwaukee has us less in contact with strangers than our old life as full time RV’ers. It’s one part of our decision to change that I am not sure I have fully reconciled. Meeting strangers was easy in the RV. Some of them I maintain contact with even now — years after a casual connection. Many I have stashed away in my memory banks. But now, living in sticks & bricks, in the same place, with a sort-of-routine schedule the opportunities to rub shoulders with new people is more limited than it had been.
I long for those moments. Those “moments” when for some reason unknown to you there’s a sudden connection with a brand new human being. They are never the people that you might “look” at because they are particularly attractive, or have done something particularly unusual — it’s not about how something in you was drawn by something in them. No. It’s about kismet, about happenstance, about finding a penny on the sidewalk, about grace, about kindness.
I hope you have those moments of sheer joy; the ones that have nothing to do with you personally, but are entirely caught up in the uniqeness of another human being. Somehow I think if we could all see that uniqueness in other human beings there’d be a lot less war in the world; a lot less inequality; a lot less hatred and selfishness.
Look for them, in your life. I know I do in mine.