I awoke to a wet, white morning, the snow falling steadily within a whisper of wintry wind. In other words: perfect running weather. So I laced on my shoes and headed to the Garden of the Gods to wend my way through the frosted red rocks.
There were few people out — another benefit of an early, snowy morning — though twice I crossed paths with men walking their dogs. We greeted each other and exchanged a few words.
“I broke my hip a few years ago doing what you’re doing,” the first man said. “Be careful.”
“It’s slick out here,” said the other, a mile farther down the trail. “Watch your step.”
I thanked each in turn and moved on, past the scrub oak, over the heavy clay soil, up through the towering otherworldly sandstone that defines the Garden. And I thought of the little kindnesses we offer each other — a smile, a greeting, a caution — even if we will never see each other again, even if we think ourselves strangers. Because we are, but we’re not.
Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron describes an everyday spiritual practice she calls “just like me.” It’s easy to practice when you’re driving, especially if you’re stuck in traffic. Look closely at the drivers around you; note the cast of their hands on the steering wheel, the expression on their faces. We are walled off from each other, encased in our moving worlds of steel and fiberglass, rubber and aluminum. But most of those drivers, just like you and me, are carrying worries and sorrows, anger and fear.
When I remember — when I’m not too caught up in my own thoughts — I do a variation on the practice. When I’m stopped at traffic lights, I look in my rear-view mirror at the driver behind me. Maybe it’s some young kid, untested and untempered by life, singing his heart out to the radio; that’s fun to see.
But the people who touch me most are the ones in whose unguarded faces I recognize my own: They are shadowed by a certain sadness, or tense with worry, or upset. Not strangers anymore. Just like me.
I have an idea for another practice, one I think might help me feel less alone, and maybe other people, too. I want to walk into a store where I have nothing to buy, and browse the aisles for solitary shoppers, especially the ones who seem sad, or tired, or even irritable. And meet their eyes directly, and smile at them, and ask — in a way that matters — “How are you?”
Some will ignore me, perhaps thinking I want something from them, or am mentally ill (a distinct possibility, I admit). Others might smile back, feeling they have been seen, if only for a moment, in an ADD world. A few might look at me quizzically, wondering: Do I know you?
In the way of the everyday, the way we humans typically reckon “knowing,” the answer is, of course, “no.”
But in the way of the evermore, where the world opens up and the walls come down — where everywhere there is suffering, and everywhere, somehow, love — the answer is “yes.” Because your worries tie knots in my thoughts; because my broken heart beats ragged in your chest. I have felt your anger, you have felt my grief. In Colorado or Timbuktu, Paris or Brussels, we are strangers and not, bound to one another by a thousand kinds of suffering and one mysterious love.
So, be careful out there, please; watch your step. Be gentle with the part of me that is in you, as I will be with the part of you that is in me.
We belong to each other in this living/dying world. Remember.