I spent the last week traveling abroad, which was an incredible experience full of many memorable moments. Among them were several made either possible or easier due to the kindness of strangers. These moments are among one of the main reasons I love to travel, especially to places dramatically different than my home, as it reminds me of the common thread of humanity that runs through all of us, even in times when it might feel a little more difficult to see it.
Part of being human is navigating the balance between the self and others. We’re called to prioritize “self-care” and distance ourselves from all things “toxic” to our own individual selves, while also being coaxed into awareness of the needs of others and our communities. I think the actual, slightly garbled message here is that we can’t enact any lasting external change before bringing that change about internally first. That kind of internal work is different than self-absorption, though. It’s a journey into self-understanding that eventually helps us to engage with others in a more open and compassionate way.
Trouble is, the kind of self-inquiry that leads to better citizenship is not only really hard work, but it’s also not prioritized by the paradigms within which most of us currently live and work. Instead, these frameworks encourage competition through the lens of scarcity, which pushes us to strive for as much as possible for ourselves, thereby making it harder for others to do the same for themselves. In the process, we see every effort they make as a threat to us, regardless of whether we actually need what they are pursuing. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of perceived lack that inhibits self-understanding and propagates the illusion of separation.
I wonder if it’s possible that there is actually enough for everyone, though, when “enough” is honestly calibrated? Even more, what if we viewed other people not as our adversaries, but instead as people we care about, or even love?
It may seem like a radical proposal, but such are the times.
I’m reminded of a story from years ago, when once again, I was traveling. I visited a yoga studio in a small coastal town that was full of tourists at the time. The class was held in a small room that was quite full, but there was space for every mat. A few minutes into class, the stranger on the mat in front of mine took off his shirt, and tossed it behind him. Part of it landed in the upper lefthand corner of my mat, to which he seemed oblivious. I was shocked at his disregard for “my space,” and became quietly enraged. How dare he? Was I invisible? Or worse, did he do it on purpose?? The more I thought about his possible motives, the more my dislike for him grew. The went on for some time, before I had a realization.
He was having a lovely yoga practice. I was not. The important question before me was, who’s fault was that? If I decided it was his, then the rest of my practice would be ruined, if not the entire rest of my day. If instead, I took responsibility for my own experience, then there was still a chance I could turn my own practice around. So that’s what I did.
Mindfulness (of which yoga is a part) teaches us that everything we experience is part of our ongoing practice. So, just like the movements I was making with my body, the presence of this stranger’s shirt became part of my practice.
I imagined how different my reaction might have been if he were a person I cared for, or even loved. We’ve all had the experience of caring for someone enough that the simple presence of their personal items makes us happy. For approximately an hour, I opened myself to the idea that “shirt guy” was someone who mattered a lot to me. I stopped minding that his shirt was there. I think I actually stopped noticing it, to be honest. My body, and my mind, relaxed into the practice. My day was saved from a cloud of self-righteous indignation.
This experience was years ago, but it changed me in a subtle way that has served me well ever since. Everyone, even the most unbelievably annoying people you encounter, has at least at some point mattered deeply to someone else — someone would be delighted to see their shirt laying around, as a reminder of their presence. Seeing that in each other changes the way that we see each other. When we truly see people, it is much harder to push them away, to disregard them as anything less than fully human, and deserving of the same grace that we are.
But first, you have to know that you are. Deserving, that is. That you aren’t despicable when you accidentally toss your shirt in the wrong direction, or don’t notice that you’ve been inconsiderate, or do anything that someone may have once told you was insufficient in any way. Much of the conflict that results in moments like this is really about us fighting with our own self-judgement, and bending that anger into the shape of judgement towards someone else.
The truth is, there is enough. You already have enough. You are enough. There is always enough, because that “enoughness” is the thread.
That day in the yoga class, I could have moved my neighbor’s shirt if I needed more space for my practice. But, it turned out that I didn’t. I had enough, even when sharing some of it with him. I gave him space, and a little extra grace, and by trying to see him differently, I gave myself those things, too.