An uncommon life

March 20, 2015

This squirrel has an uncommon life. Definitely.

Maybe she was homeless, I thought, as I saw her sitting on the ledge of a building on 5th street near the Caltrain station in San Francisco.

Her big, white-framed sunglasses caught my eye; it was 8 a.m and the sun had just emerged. She wore blue lace-up tennis shoes and khaki pants, a black sweater with some kind of colorful knit design and a grey knit stocking cap. A white metal cane and black backpack sat on the ground by her side.   She was having an animated conversation with a man in a wheelchair.

My taxi was stopped at a light so I had a minute or two to watch, and then we were off. In the back seat of the cab I thought about what her life might be like and I tried to put myself in her place.

Who was she? And if I were her, what would I be feeling? What were my concerns? How would I view my life?


*     *     *

A friend and I sat at an oceanfront restaurant talking over Cobb salads the other day. Our topic was someone she didn’t know, someone I knew, who’d led a life very different from hers or perhaps from anything she could relate to.

“Well, of COURSE he would know all about that,” she said, spearing a piece of lettuce. “I don’t see why you would think he didn’t”

I laughed.

“Of course he WOULDN’T,” I laughed. “You forget—you have lived in a rarefied—and rare world, one in which his issues and problems wouldn’t be yours. In fact, you may not even know anyone with his point of view. You have had an uncommon life.”

(It’s true. I don’t have normal conversations with my friends. She is a very good friend.)

*    *    *

an-unconventional-lifeHow often do we stop to put ourselves in the place of someone else? To imagine what their life and concerns would be? Not that often, I would bet.

It’s more common to approach the world from our own reference points, without really taking in that others don’t live in our same world. Their concerns may not bear any resemblance to ours. Their lives can be so different than ours we may not even be able to put ourselves in their shoes. (Nor could they wear ours, even metaphorically.)

Assumptions are automatic. Most of the time we aren’t even conscious that we’re making them.

I make them, too. I made them all the time when we went to India. They were learning moments for me. The extreme poverty I saw in northern India, for example. Our bus passed by entire families of people living on the street.

These families—usually with several small children– lived in ramshackle tents on sidewalks and bathed in public fountains in full view of those driving by. They cooked on a small fire they’d made on the sidewalk.  They had very little.

And yet, I saw no resentment in their faces, only joy.

That kind of joy was impossible for me to fathom. And then, I realized how different my own experience was. As an exercise, I tried to put myself in their experience.

They had a roof over their heads, and a place to bathe. The family was all together. They had their Hindu faith and belief in karma. There was food to eat.  Their lives were simple.  They knew nothing different. And they felt joy in that simple life.

Their frame of reference bore no resemblance to mine.

slumlAm I living an uncommon life?
Or are they?

As I played that reel in my head, traveling companions in our group drank rum, seemingly untroubled by similar comparisons.

There are times I curse the way I live so much in my head, think so much, and am unable to sit in any situation without analysis.

“You’re an observer,” another good friend said to me the other day as we sat over coffee in San Francisco.

Yes. It’s not always a good thing. While I  see the benefit of just sitting with a situation without judgment–without spinning out on thought–it takes effort for me to do that.  I wish it were easier.

Still, as much as I’d like to escape my head more often, I’ve come to see my ability to observe, imagine and empathize as a gift.

It allows me to see and meet people where they’re at, rather than where I’m at.

I can take it a step further than my assumptions and be of real service to others.

It is an uncommon gift for which I’m grateful.

25 comments on “An uncommon life
  1. Diane says:

    What great perceptions! I enjoy watching people and trying to envision what they are living at the moment–their cares and concerns, their thoughts and lives. Often, it seems those living the simpler lives are much happier, perhaps content, within the world. Thanks for sharing! #ultrablog

  2. Amy says:

    Great insights. We often forget to empathize with others, in our busyness and striving.

  3. Laura Kennedy says:

    Before you know what kindness really is
    you must lose things,
    feel the future dissolve in a moment
    like salt in a weakened broth.
    What you held in your hand,
    what you counted and carefully saved,
    all this must go so you know
    how desolate the landscape can be
    between the regions of kindness.
    How you ride and ride
    thinking the bus will never stop,
    the passengers eating maize and chicken
    will stare out the window forever.

    Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
    you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
    lies dead by the side of the road.
    You must see how this could be you,
    how he too was someone
    who journeyed through the night with plans
    and the simple breath that kept him alive.

    Before you know kindness as the deepest thing
    you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
    You must wake up with sorrow.
    You must speak to it till your voice
    catches the thread of all sorrows
    and you see the size of the cloth.

    Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
    only kindness that ties your shoes
    and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
    purchase bread,
    only kindness that raises its head
    from the crowd of the world to say
    It is I you have been looking for,
    and then goes with you everywhere
    like a shadow or a friend.
    –Naomi Shihab Nye

  4. Sandy says:

    Nice post. I agree. I often try to imagine myself in others’ shoes, to at least try to imagine what it would be like for another person…in whatever situation they may be in. It keeps you aware, grounded and humble. I know that it makes me thank God every day for what I have. It also makes me want to be of service to others more. 🙂

  5. T.O. Weller says:

    While reading this, I started to wonder what a common life would be. Who is in a position to say what ‘common’ is, and whether ‘common’ is even a good thing?

    I don’t even think I want to live a common life; the more I say the word, the more common it gets. 🙂

    I’ve been reflecting lately on the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we live by. I think the notion of what is common is a story all of its own.

  6. Mary says:

    Carol, you always give me something to think about! It’s not often in our hectic lives we take the time to put ourselves in someones else position. Thank you for making me more aware to do so.

  7. Kimba says:

    When I was a kid growing up in Florida, there was a homeless woman who traveled around the city. She was commonly known as the “Witch of WPB.” I always wondered about her. She rarely talked to anyone and carried all her possessions in a grocery cart. Her life was etched in the deep lines of her face and collected in the mats of hair pile on top of her head. A few years ago a reporter dove into her background and it turned out she was from a very wealthy Palm Beach family with whom she had a falling out. They lost track of her and never knew she had evolved into the WPB Witch. That reporter took the time to walk in someone else’s shoes – she’s now being taken good care of in a loving environment.

    • Karen says:

      I’ve met many, many homeless and marginally housed people, Kim, and each story is different. The concert pianist afflicted with schizophrenia; the housewife whose delusions persecuted her constantly; the First Nations man who came to the city in search of a better life and never found it….each with a story, a history, a family. When we abandon these people to their fate, we abandon part of our own humanity.

  8. The inability to leave the pain behind is why I did not become a psychologist. When I see those things…so inconceivable in my own life…I cannot forget them. I’d be a raving lunatic if I had become a psychologist.

  9. Estelle says:

    You are such a deep thinker Carol. You always give me food for thought with your writing and insight.

  10. You are right it is a very special gift you have. If it weren’t for your experiences though maybe you wouldn’t have those gifts. To change one thing is to change it all. I am a huge people watcher and love to fill in the blanks of what their life is really like but as you say I see it through my own experiences.

  11. Great post Carol. I often think about homeless people I see. How did they get there? Everyone has a story and I’d love to hear their story.

  12. Robin (Masshole Mommy) says:

    I really do try to imagine myself in someone else’s shoes. It is not always easy, but it is an important thing to remember.

  13. Kim Miller says:

    Thank you for this gentle reminder, Carol. I am a people watcher … there is nothing I love more than to just sit somewhere quietly and watch people go about their day. Downtown Richmond is a beautiful spot in the spring and summer to do just that, and it is how I would spend my lunch break when I worked downtown.

    The busy lawyer, dashing down the street to the Federal Court building. The bike courier zipping in and out of traffic to deliver his packages in time with the music playing in his earbuds. The homeless veteran with too much pride to ask for a handout, selling his newspapers on the corner of 7th and Main. Hundreds of people pass by within the span of two hours, each with their own problems, their own lives, that we rarely stop and observe. They are just one more face in the sea of many.

    Thank you for reminding me to be thankful for the life I have, and to remember that there are those who are struggling with situations in their own lives.

  14. It would be really hard to imagine what life would be in regards to someone who has a completely different lifestyle than I do but I have tried to envision it before.

  15. Katie says:

    A very truthful and thought provoking post. I often see homeless people and wonder what happened in their lives and what choices they made to end up on the streets.

  16. Carolann says:

    It’s funny, but I always put myself in the imaginary life of strangers. I always wonder what their life is like and how different their experiences are than mine. At the end of the day, as my hubby always says, he wouldn’t trade places with anyone because he knows what he has and couldn’t image what they are dealing with. Nice retrospection piece Carol!

  17. Andi says:

    I am an observer too and with the amount of homeless and odd characters we have in San Francisco it is an endless source of entertainment and angst. I often find myself trying to place myself in their shoes, knowing that shifting just a few elements in either one of our lives might find us at turned tables. It is both a blessing and a curse.

  18. Great insight. It is so important to stop and put ourselves in others’ shoes.

  19. Great post and such an important topic. If we all took the time to picture ourselves in someone else’s shoes, the world would be a much better and more empathetic place.

  20. Liz Mays says:

    I wish it came as naturally to me as it does to you. I have to think about it or it doesn’t happen. I need to retrain myself.

  21. It is fun to people watch. I like to drive by houses and imagine what their lives are like.

  22. Yes, I observe like you and feel the same. Wonder how people to get to the point that gets so difficult to get their life back in control. Makes me very thankful for every little things..

  23. bodynsoil says:

    I do the same as you mention here and sometimes struggle with how powerful the emotions feel when I do put myself in place of others. Perhaps this is due to all the life experiences I’ve had and how precarious my direction in life once was. Empathy is something I fully embrace and try to do things, however small, to make the days of those around me a little brighter.

  24. Karen says:

    Compassion and understanding…and putting yourself in another’s place. You’re so right, Carol–the more we do this, the more we can begin to truly connect with one another.

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