Same Place; Same Time

On Tuesday, I was in Burlington, Vermont. When I was returning to my car from a meeting, I started to pass a woman who was sitting on a curb. She indicated she was living off the kindness of strangers. As I passed her some money, she told me she had her possessions stolen the day before and pointed to a bag behind her. "People have been very generous to help me get some things I need."

I smiled and said, "I guess that means I should be generous too," and found more money in my wallet. She laughed. "You've already been more generous than most." Then she looked me in the eye, 'You've experienced hard things."

"Good for you for knowing that," I said.

"Were you a soldier?" she asked.

"No," I said.

"You've survived hard things."

"Yes," I said.

We wished each other well and parted. "Goodbye, warrior," she said in parting.

All the things that make us who we are -- our life experiences, education and training, our place in the world, our distinctive bodies, and our distinctive minds -- provide us with unique abilities and awarenesses. The result is we can each stand in the same place at the same time, look in the same direction, and have a different experience of the world around us. We know things that others don't know. And, by extension, all those other folks know something we don't.

When others don't see what we see, it's the human condition to think they're less intelligent, less moral, or less careful than we are. And, we can turn that on ourselves when others can access what's hard for us to get a grip on. We can think we have a deficit or a disability or a disorder or a failing that keeps us from what others can access.

It would have been easy to walk past this person, thinking she would have nothing to offer. And it would be easy to think some of my life's experiences have disabled me. Both conclusions would have resulted in losses. And, yes, I walk on by much more often than I stop.

I want to do the hard work of standing in the same place at the same time and looking in the same direction as those I encounter. I want to know what they know.

The woman at the curb made me aware: that hard work is worth doing. I live off the kindness of strangers.


Francis Sopper

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