Jewish World Review Dec. 9, 2003 / 14 Kislev 5764
Connections echo through our lives
At my bus stop one recent morning I was joined by a man I've seen there occasionally.
"Good morning," I said, watching the breath formed by my ritualistic words curl into the cold air that enveloped us.
"Morning," he returned. And then quickly this: "Well, the holidays are officially here."
I began to agree, but before I could he added: "I got robbed at gunpoint yesterday."
Joy to the world. Peace on Earth. Good will toward men. What the devil is wrong with humanity?
I commiserated with the man and got a few details about the crime. But the bus came and we ended up sitting apart. Since then, however, I've been haunted by the encounter for several reasons.
First, it was a reminder that we never know what trauma or joy the people who pass through our lives are trying to integrate into their existence. We walk inadvertently among people who are wounded or angry, off-balance or alarmed, thrilled by new love or overwhelmed by grief. It is the human condition to be entangled in emotion, lost in thought, centered in self. All this goes on even as all of us relentlessly process the huge amount of information assaulting our bodies through our eyes, ears, nose, skin.
And when we encounter one another as we pinball through our days and nights, we can never fully know just by looking what others are thinking, feeling or sorting out. It's almost always a surprise.
For instance, as I walked up to my fellow bus rider I had no way to know that he would tell me about getting held up the day before. But when he described how someone he thought he knew had given him a car ride and then robbed him, I was forced to figure out what that meant both for him and for me.
Not only are we not islands, we are connected in countless ways even to people we don't know. And as these people ricochet through our lives, they change us, cause us to reconsider what we thought we knew. They present us with evidence that perhaps the world isn't operating in quite the way we had imagined.
For example, it's not that I'm unaware of the dangers of street crime, but I had not been thinking about getting robbed when I encountered the man at my bus stop. By telling me a bit of his story, he set some of my brain's agenda. So it's unlikely that I will go to a bus stop any time soon without thinking of criminals who want my money (it's not worth your effort, folks).
I don't know why it should catch me unaware that the people we simply happen across in life can affect our thinking and acting so profoundly. It's not, after all, as though we are of different species. It's not that we don't share what's often called our common humanity.
That term does more than express can't-we-all-get-along Rodney Kingism. Rather, it acknowledges that a few of the very atoms in the man at my bus stop may have been present in one of my great-grandparents - not because they are related by blood but because matter endlessly recycles itself. So a carbon atom that found its way into some dead relative of mine eventually could end up in your grandchild.
The great epic poet Walt Whitman understood all of this long before the scientific sophistication of our own age. In "Song of Myself" Whitman wrote this:
"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,/And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."
So in one sense, the robber who pointed a gun at the man I encountered at my bus stop also pointed a gun at me. As long as any of us is vulnerable to the evils we perpetrate on one another, all of us are vulnerable. No victim of crime, disease or loneliness suffers outside of the context of our connections.
For all that, we remain individuals, responsible for our own actions and reactions. And as 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill correctly noted, "Whatever crushes individuality is despotism."
One need not be a national tyrant to be a despot. One need merely threaten to harm or kill individuals like the man at my bus stop. We may be, as the Bible says, exiles and sojourners in the land, but we do not - indeed, we cannot - make the journey alone.
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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved