“I cannot do all the good that the world needs. But the world needs all the good that I can do.” — Jana Stanfield
I was walking into a local coffee shop as I typically do nearly every Saturday morning. It was one of those delightful, early spring mornings overflowing with abundant sunshine that enlivened the brisk air. New green grass stretched through the manicured town patches after its long winter hibernation, while newly formed flowering buds and blossoms bobbed and bobbled to the rhythm of the breeze.
Inhaling, I slowed my typical hasty pace and felt a smile forming in response to all the sensory overload. Absorbing the glow of my surroundings, I noticed a few people, in spite of the morning chill, sitting on benches, faces tilted toward the luminescence. Visages, unknown to me, radiating with the joy of appreciation after dreary days of darkness.
On the right side sat a young woman most likely around the age of my daughter — early to mid-20s. Short, flaxen hair, tucked neatly behind her ears, her face wiped clean of any makeup except for lipstick, the shade of spring tulips. Tall and curvy, she wore a lavender spaghetti strap shirt that struck me as a bit underdressed for the morning crispness, but what did I know — I am nearly always cold. Chin thrust high, eyes shut, a close-lipped smile across her face.
She seemed happy, content, and at ease. How lovely, I thought, as I walked past her and on into the coffee shop.
It was only when I walked out of the coffee shop that I noticed what lay at the woman’s feet. There was an overstuffed, worn backpack with a rather faded and worn water bottle inserted into one side of the bag that she heaved upward in one practiced swoop. Then, with much effort, she picked up another bag and what appeared to be some sort of walking stick.
Was she a hiker? Maybe, but she was wearing a spaghetti strap shirt, which didn’t strike me as hiking apparel for this time of year. Besides, if she was a hiker, why would she be in town? I tried to put the pieces together and kept coming up short. As I neared my car, I looked across the street, and I watched her begin to amble away from the community patio, moving westward, the opposite direction of where I would be traveling. Her shuffle and bent back stabbed at my heart. Then, as I took one last glance at her, with the sun on her bare shoulders, she paused, straightened her posture, tucked stray strands of hair behind her ears, threw back her shoulders, and determinedly continued moving on.
Who was she? What was her story? Where was she headed? Why was she walking around with a backpack, much less alone? Was she OK? Did she have family and friends who loved her? On and on my mind spun with the worry of a mother.
Then, it occurred to me that I hadn’t truly seen her entire circumstance until she was walking away, and yet I did nothing. I could have bought her a cup of coffee, a breakfast sandwich, a bottle of water, a piece of fruit, or something, yet I took no action. Why hadn’t I been more observant? Why hadn’t I taken time to check on her? I felt an onslaught of self-criticism and disappointment.
My imagination was certainly getting the best of me. There could have been numerous valid reasons for her carrying such a heavy load. She could have been traveling solo, visiting random places off the beaten path. Perhaps she was a university student heading home for the weekend, but why would she have a walking stick? Maybe she was training to hike a big trail, such as the Appalachian Trail. On the flip side, however, there were as many unfortunate circumstances that could have caused her to be so overburdened. I could not then, and still haven’t, been able to shake this young woman’s image.
Since that encounter, I have often thought about her. I have asked myself repeatedly why I didn’t pay closer attention upon first seeing, and I’ve been wondering why Ican’t forget her image. What lesson was I to glean from this? Then I read an essay in which the author’s main point seemed to say that it is the very people about whom we wonder that foster our capacity for compassion, empathy, greater understanding, and sometimes even prompt us to take action for others for whom we see as different within our community.
She (the author) suggested that by “seeing others as part of us we do not yet know,” we can begin to stop the cycle of separateness.
While the author’s vision is highly aspirational, it is also a catalyst for personal reflection. Reflecting upon my own actions, I’d like to think I am open-minded and compassionate; however, there are still multiple ways in which I have failed to see others as part of me, to share another’s pain, grief, or dared to understand their self-absorptions. Some of my most vociferous and worst behaviors often occur while driving. I have also been known to be guilty of a condescending look, a sarcastic thought, or even in my ability to look the other way. While I can soften the blow and claim that I am a human being, having a human moment, it doesn’t make my actions in those moments any better, and it also doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t work on eliminating, or at the very least, reducing them.
My lesson to learn, at least as I presently reflect upon it, is a reminder of what I know to be true as an educator. Every person starts as a child of someone — a symbol of hope and promise for the future. Each child is part of a family, whether known or not, a being of a community, and a citizen of the world — the same as which we all began. While I will never know the story of the unknown young lady, she is a part of the same humanity as I am.
If the human collective could be thought of as one large web, my life would only be one of the hydrogen or oxygen atoms forming a drop of dew on one strand glistening in the early morning light alongside all of the other droplets. If each orb of dew were a family, each uncrossed part of strand were a community, the full length of each individual strand would be a county, and the entire web would be the world, the resiliency of the web’s ability to support all of dew drops on the strands, as well as to sustain life, depends on the integrity of each strand. The strength of the web’s silk depends upon the bonding of various atoms to form the proteins forming the web in the first place. If one part of the web is damaged, it must quickly be rebuilt, or the entire web will cease to exist.
To take this analogy one step further, those atoms making up the dew drops at the top of the web may perceive the green tips of grass, while those at the bottom may only discern the brown of dirt — and yet, no matter their view of the world, they all belong to the same web.
I pray that my thoughts and actions more regularly reflect the fact that every person is part of the same web of life as me. When my brain deems someone as “another,” may I begin to habitually remember with each encounter that they are part of me that I may not yet know, and their existence matters. I would do well to see the world from their position on the web.
While it is overwhelming to think of repairing the entire web of the world, I can begin to repair, foster, and reshape my thinking and interactions within my own communities. I may not be perfect in my efforts, as the story of the young woman illustrates, but I can use each shortcoming as a reminder to try again.