Tuesday, October 09, 2018

shared experience?

With many things happening lately, the idea of shared experiences has been on my mind a lot more. but fair warning, this isn't an optimistic post...

As a daily commuter in a pretty urban place over the years, I've always found ironic the quiet anonymity many folks, myself included, prefer.

A few years ago I started taking a much earlier train. New job, new family, new routine. Becoming a real grown up - as opposed to the mostly self-concerned, fake one I'd been pretending to be for much of my twenties and thirties.

My daughter was not even one, and i was still dealing with all the stresses and anxiety that come with being a new parent. My own insecurities, uncertainties, my newfound daily (hourly?) worry for my little girl, and of course, constant concern for my wife, who was bearing arguably more of the stress than me. I found myself being more "quietly empathetic" to other parents I now noticed more.

On the train platform was a pregnant woman. In her I could see my wife and all the trial and tribulations she had, and would continue to manage.

The thing about daily rush hour trains, is that it's mostly everyone for themselves. While it's not quite Lord of the Flies, you're on your own. When the train arrives, everyone queues (crowds?) up by the door to pile on and get a seat, which isn't always guaranteed.

So in the case of the pregnant lady, I made sure she always got on before others and got herself a seat. The casual, passive step to block a more unconcerned commuter from cutting ahead, the slower walk to get her room to move, etc. I'd like to assume many others made the same choice, but this wasn't so obviously a frail old person - she was just another thirty-something commuter - so it's safer to assume not. So this became a daily, unspoken, morning ritual of mine. Make sure the nice pregnant lady got a seat.

Anyhow, one day she wasn't riding the train, so I hoped for the best, and forgot about it, back to my shoving my way on the train each day.

A few months later, she showed up again, cheery, but clearly tired. So recognizing a new mom, now commuting, I did what i could to make sure she could get a seat. One day we struck up a chat, compared notes on daughters and daycares, and slowly became local friends (we've since moved, so we'll see if the friendship lasts...no worries if not).

I don't tell this story to pat myself on the back to say I'm a nice guy. If anything, quite the opposite, a damning on our collective society. If I didn't project my shared experience on the lady, she probably wasn't getting my help to get a seat. I've got lot of stuff going on! Let's be clear, i wouldn't have pushed her out of the way, but maybe I wouldn't have stopped to help. Think whatever you will about yourself, but it's probably the same for most of us. It's an unconscious thing. We are so wrapped up in our own stuff (moreso now with our tiny blinking distraction devices in our pockets, headphones optional).

We recently moved. 
From a quaint river village to a true commuter city. 
From a small old house with a few rental units to giant modern complex. 

In the old place, especially after our kid was born, we knew everyone by name, and usually quite a bit more. The recently married gay couple next door thinking about kids. The young couple downstairs who moved back to the region to console an ailing parent. The divorced guy upstairs with two boys in college. The married mom upstairs living apart from her family during the week for the job of a lifetime. The old cranky widowed guy above them who once lived in Asia with his wife and a giant sailboat model that had a story behind it I'd not yet heard. We even knew some of the folks in the buildings next to us. There was a neighborhood dog. Not that our town only had just one canine, but this lady and Bob the dog were local celebrities.

Then we moved to the giant urban apartment complex. Arguably even more people we have things in common with...we see them every day in the hallways, trains, and local shops and restaurants. We're not the only new parents both juggling work and family. We are not the only mixed couple. We are not the only one in geeky tshirts. But no one talks. Everyone minds their own business.

And this isn't some suburbs/city thing. My folks live in a suburban subdivision in the South. Over the years, many of the neighbors i grew up with have moved out, save one. All the new neighbors, my aging parents complain about barely knowing. 

That worries me.

In India, and much of the developing world I've had the privilege of traveling, poverty confronts you at every turn. The crippled man on the ground, the begging child in the street, the old resigned woman on the corner. The upwardly mobile middle class (that's the developing part), walk by ignoring it...it's part of their every day life. But as a visitor (locally or internationally), if you know someone - have some mutual connection - doors are open, tea is served, rides are given. In this context, I've been invited into practical strangers' homes, and wound up leaving close friends for the time being, happy to return the favor should you be in my neighborhood. You are family. I feel like there's a Sanskrit saying that more or less translates to "...guests are God," but with a narrow definition of who gets to be guest

Is that a more honest assessment of how the world works? Is that the way it should be? 

Or can we be better?

The recent acrimonious confirmation hearings brought this to life on an even more macro level. I have been fortunate to have experienced, or know anyone who has,  something as traumatic as sexual assault. But the testimony was harrowing and gave many of us pause. 

And yet. 

Many people didn't buy it, our outright dismissed it. Certain people voted otherwise. Is this because, like me, there was no shared experience? Was the woman's calm, often emotional recollection not enough?

Should it have to be required that we have something in common before we can empathize? Do we have to much going on in our worlds that we can't try to feel or process more for the fellows beside us on the train, hallway, or street?

Life is only going to become busier. 

Our worlds are only going to become more complex. We know this. Are we willing to let something more slip, because we didn't have anything in common?

For all of our sakes, I really hope not. 
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