Before the stroke, dad used to talk to anybody, anywhere. It didn’t matter. Waitress, cashier, postal clerk at the counter, stranger on the street.
He was fearless in approaching people and finding out their story. It used to embarrass the heck out of me, especially at restaurants.
He’d want to know the name of the waitress, about her job, her family. Meanwhile, as an awkward teenager, I’d cringe in my seat and hide myself behind the menu.
Now, as an adult, I understand. Dad was about connection. About recognizing the other as part of the whole.
It was about saying, “I see you and honor your presence” in the here and now. And about digging deeper to hear the other person’s story in a culture where we take so little time to listen.
So in my growing old age, I am following suit.
I travel the PA Turnpike on occasion and make it a point to chat with the person in the toll booth no matter how many cars are behind me.
As I was heading to a friend’s house on Christmas Eve day, I drove my car off the exit and up to the booth. I rolled down my window; the wind was biting and frigid. An African-American woman reached out her hand to take my fare. She looked exhausted and worn, a wool cap pushed down around her ears, her fingers peeking out of gloves with the tips cut off.
“How are you?” I asked.
“You look cold. I hope they’re giving you some time off later for Christmas Eve.”
Then she spoke.
“It’s going to be a rough one.”
I waited as she handed me my change.
“My mother died a few months ago. It’s just not the same. I mean, she was there every Christmas, always there, and now …”
She stopped, her eyes tearing. She turned her head.
“I don’t know how I’m going to get through it.”
I took a deep breath and said, “Tell you what. I’ll say a little prayer for you, if you do that for me. I’m caring for my dad and it’s often hard. Maybe we can pray for each other.”
She smiled. “Thanks. And Merry Christmas.”
I wished her the same and was on my way.
It got me to thinking of how often I dismiss people — not out of meanness or arrogance (at least I hope not) — when I am caught up in my day-to-day doings. Sometimes encounters are simply functional, transactions that need to happen and then I move on.
But lately, as I’ve said, I’ve been stopping myself. Taking time to be “present” to those I meet during the course of a day and truly “seeing” them as my fellow sisters and brothers. Sometimes people want to engage and talk, other times they don’t. I open myself to whatever wants to happen.
Some time ago, a friend and I were eating at a restaurant. Dad’s lessons came back to me and after the waitress took our order, I asked her name and a little more about her job (much to the embarrassment of my friend).
“Long day, I bet,” I said.
Raising her eyebrows, she answered, “You have no idea.”
I learned more. She was a single mom, one child at home sick, and she was going to her second job later in the day. I told her she was an amazing woman and she beamed.
“Gosh, thanks,” she whispered. “Nobody’s ever told me that before.”
I left her an extra tip.
Please know, this isn’t about something I’m doing that’s extraordinary. I know how subtle and insidious the ego can be. I share these stories only to propose how simple these exchanges are — and how life-changing they can be, on both sides of the equation.
In fact, being present to the people we meet during the course of a day is incredibly simple.
And as I age, I find myself drawn more and more to simplicity, pruning away and removing all that is of little importance. What I do find of importance, however, is the simple interchange of receiving the “other” (me and that person) as a gift — with a grateful heart.
I’ve come to see these encounters not only as sacred, but also as mini-surrenders. In other words, I’m giving up my time, my control of schedules or “whatever” to take a breath, listen and to see in them someone who is much like me, and I, like them.
“The inner work of personal transformation is not about personal healing for the sake of personal healing alone but to ultimately become someone prepared to take that healing to others, to become a channel of grace in the world.”
We become that channel when we come to the awareness shared in the following brief story.
A spiritual seeker once asked well-known Indian sage Ramana Maharshi:
How are we to treat others?
There are no others.
So how do you want to be a gift of grace in the world today? To the other, who is you?