I don’t know his name, where he’s from or what makes him tick. He’s a man who sometimes intersects with me amidst this web of routine and necessity that ties us all together without our necessarily knowing much about one another, or about ourselves.
What is our appetite to know each other, which is a way to know ourselves?
He’s a man I see from time to time, knowing very little about him. I know I like him, though. We always have a brief, pleasant interaction while he bags my soup and the roll that comes with it at a shoebox-sized cafe on the far west side of Greenwich Village. The place has good food but it’s quite out of my way; I rarely get there, especially during these last weeks when I was sidelined by surgery. Recuperating at home meant a few sacrifices, including a long period during which I contented myself with inferior versions of my favorite treats.
But those treats beckoned the other night when it was cold and windy... one of those quintessential late fall nights when good soup seems particularly welcome. So I made a special effort to walk way west and try my luck at the shoebox after a long hiatus.
When I entered the shop shortly before closing time, he was busy behind the counter, as usual. He had the same pleasant, gentle, easy-going manner as he picked and packaged orders for customers ahead of me in line. Except there was a difference: He looked painfully thin compared with how I remembered him from a month earlier. The smooth texture of his pale brown skin was stretched tightly over his handsome face. Those high cheekbones were sharply visible, and his arms were like spindles. It seemed like special effort was required for him to do the simple things he was long accustomed to doing.
While he busied himself, a woman suddenly appeared from the shop’s nether regions – a worker there, or perhaps the owner. “You’re looking better,” she said to him sympathetically as we customers eavesdropped. “You think so?” he asked quietly as he continued putting orders together. “Yeah,” she said, adding gently “but you could gain a little more weight.” He said something in agreement with her assessment, but I unconsciously tuned out their conversation because I couldn’t handle the feelings this situation was conjuring up inside me.
Who was this man, really, and what had happened to him? He had obviously been through a severe illness, and I could relate to that, having only recently emerged from my own recuperative cocoon with a deficit of five pounds shed from my frame. I had felt great vulnerability for the past several weeks and was just starting to feel “like myself” again. How interesting that feeling less vulnerable was the more normal feeling to which the compass in my head was pointing. How ironic that I had conceived of my visit to this cafe as a happy step on my way back to normalcy, only to have the visit feel anything but normal or upbeat.
We all know that “normal” is a dangerous word, a grotesque pretense, but most of us operate most of the time as if there were such a thing. This is certainly true for me – I adore routines, predictability. My little habits, my assumptions and prejudices, foster the illusion that I can expect order and stability from my days and nights. Though I might complain about it at times, yearning to be more daring, predictability is a lot more comfortable for me than confronting the uncertainty that rules all our lives. But that uncertainty can’t be denied for very long....reading in the newspapers about people who have lost their jobs and their homes, I feel uneasy because it reminds me of what I’ve lost or could lose. Walking into a little cafe where all I had expected to do was buy some soup I was suddenly uneasy seeing someone skeletal, even more skeletal than I was.
So I was caught up in the mystery of my own reflection in the face and body of another person. I was confronting my shock at the connection and my inability to do anything with or about it.
There are many layers to this elephantine uncertainty that is always there: What will become of me? What will other people think of whatever happens to me, and how much of what “happens” will actually, in my mind, be other people’s perceptions of the bare facts of my life? Do I look good, and is that being noticed by the right people? Do I look like I have things under control? Am I being properly valued by others, do they recognize what I have to offer? If they don’t recognize my offering, whose fault is that and what do I do with that feeling? Etcetera...
This is a common way of being in the world: insecurity expressed through self-torment about the way others see us. This insecurity is big business: It propels up to 50% of consumer spending (http://www.bls.gov/opub/uscs/report991.pdf), which in turn accounts for 70% of U.S. economic activity. But surely it is possible to look at something (or someone) without having, or feeling the need to have, an opinion about it (them). Or in the context of this cafe encounter, surely it is possible to bear witness to something painful without implicating ourselves in it or trying to “fix” it. And if we see these possibilities, then we also see the potential to live securely without worrying about the shadowy judgments we imagine are continually made and re-made by others...about us.
On that chilly night, my intellectual grasp of these notions was completely useless to me. It was upsetting to see this pleasant man looking so frail. He was so publicly frail... did I look so obviously “not myself” to the people around me? Had my illness left its mark on my face and bearing, however temporarily, arousing pity in others? Would pity be a proper valuation of what I have to offer, or was I “better” than that? Why would pity felt on my behalf be so terrible that I would shun it like a newly minted leper shuns a leper colony? Why was it so painful to feel – and witness pity felt – for this other man? This man, much younger but about my size and a million miles away behind a deli counter in that bright, well worn space.
And then it hit me... I was feeling my innate helplessness yet again. I was experiencing my reality, a reality that normally gets papered over by the clutter of routine sleepwalking. Witnessing the suffering of someone else without having a way to ease that suffering was just a kissing cousin of my three days on the streets of Manhattan or my two weeks recovering from surgery. It was the mirror image of what I had been experiencing – it was my image. In that little cafe, the helplessness of others and their utter dependence on me was fully on display right next to the crab meat sandwiches and the beet salad. Unfortunately, I didn’t seem to have any better tools to work with the suffering of others than I had had to cope with my own suffering. And I couldn’t just bear witness to what was going on – I felt the need to react. The result: more suffering!
As the man behind the counter talked with his co-worker, as the customers ahead of me in line shifted restlessly on their feet, I was feeling the pain of my inescapable connection to sickness and uncertainty. Not knowing what to do with that pain, I bided my time until it was my turn to order. When my turn came, I stepped up to the counter, said hello to the man as cheerfully as I could and told him what I wanted. We chatted pleasantly while he got my soup, behaving as if nothing unusual had happened to either of us. And then I took my paper bag and left the shop, walking slowly eastward.