One morning out running with a friend, we passed an old woman in one of those motorized chairs taking her two small dogs for a walk. She gave us a smile that lit up the world and shouted out a cheer, as if we were finishing a race.
It was an astonishingly generous reaction. She wasn’t moping over her own inability to walk; she was celebrating our ability to still do so.
I saw her again a few days later while driving to work, and if it weren’t for the dogs and the same fleece hat that sat somewhat cockeyed on her head, I wouldn’t have recognized her. Her smile was gone, replaced by that straight ahead stare that I associate with nursing homes.
I am an impressively fast judger. If judging people were an Olympic event, if they could read the speed of our brain waves, I might qualify. If the judges rated contestants on accuracy, on the other hand, my Olympic dreams would be crushed. Until I saw this woman in these two different circumstances, I had passed a goodly number of people in motorized chairs and consistently mistaken their expression for their soul.
Perhaps accuracy is not the thing to aim for any more than speed is; perhaps the thing to aim for is exactly what this woman showed us: generosity and love. Accuracy is concerned with being right, but it might be impossible to be right about a fellow human being—or about a bird or a tree. If all of creation is a manifestation of God, then we are all, at our core, a mystery, and you can’t be right or wrong about a mystery.
That doesn’t mean we need to spend time with people who are harmful in large or small ways. It just means that if we can approach life with a wider lens, if we can greet each other as what we are—deep calling unto deep—we might smile and cheer more.
Many years ago, I worked with a woman who lied habitually. It took me a while to realize what was going on because I’d never met anyone with that habit.
One day she told me that a coworker would be out for a few days because he’d received a grand jury summons. She said, “I thought he was lying, but he brought in the jury summons.” I hope my jaw didn’t literally hang open in front of her. I understood all at once that she thought everyone else lied the way she did and that her life must be really isolated, difficult, and unhappy.
The priest giving our parish Lenten retreat put it this way: people who lie can’t see other people. I think we miss seeing each other in so many ways. I often assume other people are approaching me with the same small, fearful voices with which I’m approaching them.
A small example: I hate it when I’m driving in the left lane and someone zooms around me in the right lane and then cuts back in front of me, not because it’s unsafe but because I’m insulted that the person thinks I’m going too slow. As I was speeding to catch the van the other morning, I saw my impatience and frustration with the person in front of me who was going slightly under the speed limit and realized that the people on the freeway might be perfectly happy to zoom around me. I’m projecting my frustration onto them.
A larger example, I sometimes worry that my friends are mad at me or don’t want to be around me when there is zero evidence or history to support this concern. (If you need a good laugh, The Onion did a marvelous piece on this particular psychosis.) Which means I’m not seeing my friends, some of the people I love most in the world.
So in a very real way, whatever I’m doing to myself, I’m doing to others, and vice versa; however I’m judging myself, I’m judging others the same way, and vice versa. One more argument for loving kindness all around.