Something I dislike about myself is that I’m occasionally caught off guard by my reaction to the concerns of others. I spend so much time pretending to care that when it’s real, my whole being awakens. And it doesn’t matter if my bureaucratic, rubber-stamping brain comes along or not.
Finding myself 100% unreservedly happy for someone else’s joy, for instance, makes me need to find a chair, fast; to think and relish the awareness before it fades. Sadly, I can only remember nine or ten instances in which I recognized the strange sensation of wanting to sing out-loud because something good happened to someone else.
It works the other way too, like it did with Big Wednesday, a well-fed, fifty-something homeless guy with sun-bleached dreads. I hadn’t seen him when I pulled into the gas station, but suddenly he was at my bumper.
Big Wednesday’s California tan was natural and healthy; he wore a classic Baja pullover, Billabong shorts, and flip-flops – a wardrobe one could wear for weeks without question on the coast. But this gas station was at Franklin and Gower, in Hollywood, a good deal inland. He definitely failed the drunk-look. In fact, he looked new to homelessness, new to self-inflicted consequences, maybe, or just new to L.A.
The pumps were busy with customers so he hadn’t startled me, yet I was rendered useless at the sight of him. He was like a frog removed from its creek bed, and his face could’ve sold me a car. His presence gently excused itself around the…um…unpermissive disposition I’m occasionally teased about, and when he asked for any spare change, my brain got left behind.
“Listen, man. I’m not lazy. I’m not like this. I’m a good worker.”
It was important to him that I know he was forgivable, exceptional, and worth my empathy.
And boom, the universe, or God, or what-the-hell-ever slugged me in the chest with one of those stray Mike Tyson body blows still zooming around since the ’90s.
Who am I that this man should account for his bad luck? Who am I that he should atone for his need of 90¢? Who am I that he should assure me he beats himself up when no one’s looking? And while I was still microprocessing the word “lazy,” with images of him busting his ass on a construction site crushing any contrary possibility, his voice cracked on the word, “worker.”
Of all people, who am I that this man’s voice should break while explaining himself, when an incalculable number of coins were being handed out freely all over the city? We judge people all the time, but here I was suddenly wondering, who am I to do so? It’s unsettling when judging others turns on you – and I don’t mean when you’re the one being judged. I mean when casual dismissiveness betrays you.
Big Wednesday cleared his throat and smiled. He tried to toughen up, but I’m cursed with weirdo prison X-ray vision when it comes to men summoning up the macho, and this happy-go-lucky-burn-out didn’t need to bother. Even in prison, there are just some guys every bastard on the Yard agrees not to mess with because it feels like going after a baby deer with a combat shotgun. Even the purely predatory need to laugh, and the relief of humanity in prison comes from men just like Big Wednesday. He couldn’t con his way out of a paper bag – anyone could see that. All I wanted was for this frog to be returned to its creek bed.
So I said, “It’s cool, dude. This is nuthin’ man. Shit’ll get better. You watch.”
I gave him a few bucks. I smiled back, and I kept myself from hugging the guy and freakin’ us both out. He smiled again and turned away. I felt so small. It had only been 54 seconds, but it rang a bell my heart can still hear clearly.
My inner DMV employee – the bureaucrat who misses nothing and withholds his feelings while holding people to the properly filled out emotional forms before engaging in a sincere exchange – got his ass kicked.
Standing at that gas pump, I was suddenly desperate not to go back to being me. And I really did go on to hide behind my tough-love, scar-tissue, conditional-on-you principles a little less. Somehow, being willing to recognize the concerns of others; good, bad and ugly, became less excruciating. Fighting to keep that and struggling to improve upon it has since become crucially important. Because it won’t always be a frog removed from a creek bed.
Wherever I can replace “John” with admitting and acknowledging the concerns of others, I try to do so. I force myself to apply this effort to less dramatic scenery, to mundane interactions and even, God help me, “undeserving” situations where someone is ready with an excuse, or otherwise fails to meet my criteria for a re-trial.
Still, the key word here is “force,” ’cause believe me, it isn’t easy. Most of those around me at any given moment can kiss my ass for their complaining and entitlements. I just hope to reach a point where the amount of shock I feel when I’m pulled outside of myself at the news of someone’s tight-spot or triumph is decreased. I know that that “unpermissive” disposition I get teased about will only distance me from people as I get older.
So, happy or wicked-annoying, I’m going to practice recognizing the concerns of others – to further deny my own self mania.
“I write to discover what I know.” ― Flannery O’Connor