When I was younger, I would have tried to fill in the blanks. I would have assumed certain things about her and imagined a life for her. As a young man I must have been uncomfortable not knowing who was around me and was more confident then than now assuming what was going on in the world.
But over the years I've learned that I if assume something about a person, I'll inevitably discover that I'm way off base. The surprises have made me less confident.
For example, once I was in an electronics store and noticed a Middle Eastern couple. She wore a traditional scarf that covered her hair and most of her head. She stood behind her husband while he studied merchandise. I imagined that she played a submissive role in the marriage. Then she removed a smart phone from her purse. After using it for several minutes, she said to her husband, "Use my account. Here’s the card.” She produced a credit card from her purse. So much for my assumptions.
That reminds me of a time I was waiting in a concourse to board an aircraft. In the seat opposite me was a fellow in camouflage fatigues. A tall man, he had a serious, commanding air about him. Combat uniforms don’t have obvious indications of rank, but I was sure he was a general, or at least a colonel. He looked around the room and gestured at someone with his head. Before long, two other service members joined him and they began talking. It soon become obvious by their joking around that these soldiers were far younger than I thought they were. In fact, they were low-ranking enlisted men. Wrong again!
In fact how could I ever hope to be right about a total stranger, not having a single piece of factual information? I know I’m connected to other people by a common humanity, and I share this world in space and time with them, but I don’t have a clue about their life journeys. Not a clue. Immersed in their lives, they are completely unknown to me.
Older and wiser now, I resisted the temptation to fill in the blanks about the pretty young stylist. After my haircut, she appeared at the register to accept my payment.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
She seemed pleased that I asked. “My friends call me Red.”
And just like that, the existential membrane that separates us started to melt away, her personality began to reveal itself, and I had the first clue about who she was. Every human life is interesting and unique, and the paths they walk are unprecedented, separate and unknown.
Maybe someday she’ll tell me the story of her teen journey.
Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength .