Maybe she was homeless, I thought, as I saw her sitting on the ledge of a building on 5th street near the Caltrain station in San Francisco.
Her big, white-framed sunglasses caught my eye; it was 8 a.m and the sun had just emerged. She wore blue lace-up tennis shoes and khaki pants, a black sweater with some kind of colorful knit design and a grey knit stocking cap. A white metal cane and black backpack sat on the ground by her side. She was having an animated conversation with a man in a wheelchair.
My taxi was stopped at a light so I had a minute or two to watch, and then we were off. In the back seat of the cab I thought about what her life might be like and I tried to put myself in her place.
Who was she? And if I were her, what would I be feeling? What were my concerns? How would I view my life?
* * *
A friend and I sat at an oceanfront restaurant talking over Cobb salads the other day. Our topic was someone she didn’t know, someone I knew, who’d led a life very different from hers or perhaps from anything she could relate to.
“Well, of COURSE he would know all about that,” she said, spearing a piece of lettuce. “I don’t see why you would think he didn’t”
“Of course he WOULDN’T,” I laughed. “You forget—you have lived in a rarefied—and rare world, one in which his issues and problems wouldn’t be yours. In fact, you may not even know anyone with his point of view. You have had an uncommon life.”
(It’s true. I don’t have normal conversations with my friends. She is a very good friend.)
* * *
It’s more common to approach the world from our own reference points, without really taking in that others don’t live in our same world. Their concerns may not bear any resemblance to ours. Their lives can be so different than ours we may not even be able to put ourselves in their shoes. (Nor could they wear ours, even metaphorically.)
Assumptions are automatic. Most of the time we aren’t even conscious that we’re making them.
I make them, too. I made them all the time when we went to India. They were learning moments for me. The extreme poverty I saw in northern India, for example. Our bus passed by entire families of people living on the street.
These families—usually with several small children– lived in ramshackle tents on sidewalks and bathed in public fountains in full view of those driving by. They cooked on a small fire they’d made on the sidewalk. They had very little.
And yet, I saw no resentment in their faces, only joy.
That kind of joy was impossible for me to fathom. And then, I realized how different my own experience was. As an exercise, I tried to put myself in their experience.
They had a roof over their heads, and a place to bathe. The family was all together. They had their Hindu faith and belief in karma. There was food to eat. Their lives were simple. They knew nothing different. And they felt joy in that simple life.
Their frame of reference bore no resemblance to mine.
As I played that reel in my head, traveling companions in our group drank rum, seemingly untroubled by similar comparisons.
There are times I curse the way I live so much in my head, think so much, and am unable to sit in any situation without analysis.
“You’re an observer,” another good friend said to me the other day as we sat over coffee in San Francisco.
Yes. It’s not always a good thing. While I see the benefit of just sitting with a situation without judgment–without spinning out on thought–it takes effort for me to do that. I wish it were easier.
Still, as much as I’d like to escape my head more often, I’ve come to see my ability to observe, imagine and empathize as a gift.
It allows me to see and meet people where they’re at, rather than where I’m at.
I can take it a step further than my assumptions and be of real service to others.
It is an uncommon gift for which I’m grateful.