I am moved upon to write about four experiences I’ve had which to me seem somehow linked. I think they say something about the state of humanity and something else about our divine tendency and desire to "mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort." I am from a small town. When one from a small town walks around cities that are big and in bloom with chaos and beauty, light and dark, madness and genius, humanity and inhumanity on every corner one is able to notice--can't help but notice--things which cause them to perk their ears and listen through the sound of commotion to these quiet personal moments played out in front of a distracted audience. In a small town one gets used to noticing. At the time these events were witnessed, I knew nothing of Siddhartha Gautama—how at a young age he left the protected paradise of his wealthy home and explored the world outside his confines. The types of suffering he witnessed shocked and moved him so much he began a quest to discover the root and cure of human suffering, which search ended in 49 days of meditation beneath a pipal tree, and the birth of a new world religion.
The first event occurred in New York—Times Square. I was 16 and walking through the crowded streets at night, looking up at the flashing words and pictures the size of buildings and trying to take in the rushed pace, close quarters, and the warm, damp smell of the city, keeping my mom close to avoid separation. We passed Spongebob—someone on the sidewalk was wearing a huge Spongebob costume (big square yellow head with a dopey smile) and there were a few kids having their picture taken with him. As we passed by I jokingly said, “Mom, we should take our picture with Spongebob.” Not accustomed to street vendors, I noticed the collection plate nearby and said, “Hah! Never mind, I don’t want to pay for it.” We explored some of the downtown shops and headed back to the apartment where we were staying for our vacation. As we passed back by Spongebob’s sidewalk domain, I saw something that made me deeply regret what I had said earlier. “Spongebob” removed his yellow, wide-grinning slap-happy head and I saw an Arabic woman in tears who went over to the cement steps and embraced her husband who held her, and then sat with her on the steps as they cried. As we walked away tears were falling down my face and I had a hard time explaining to my mom.
The next three episodes took place in Anchorage, Alaska and in one day. My friend Misty and I were staying at a Hilton for an Association of Student Governments conference—we were 17. In the time we had off, we decided to strike out in our scarves and hoods to explore the city in the cold winter air. We were meandering down a center street, with high gleaming office buildings rising up on either side. As we passed one building, the doors were pushed open and we looked ahead of us to see a slender, dark-haired young man in a business suit come flying down the steps. His face was twisted in pain. He stopped at the bottom of the steps and yelled—a cry from deep inside like a wild wounded man as he crushed a manila folder in his hand, looking up at the black windows. He crumpled down to a squatting position wringing the manila folder and crying. I wondered what dream of his had just ended. We looked at each other unsure what to say having witnessed this personal moment of pain. One of us made a joke like, “Not a good day for that guy,” and we continued on our way.
A few streets over, another scene made us stop our conversation and pause to contemplate what was before us. A white picket fence and a frosted lawn separated us from a small shrine where the Virgin Mary stood under an awning with outstretched arms. A Hispanic man in uniform was kneeing on the cement walkway leading up to her, his hands clasped in front of him and his lips moving as he uttered a plea. His custodian’s cart was parked inside the fence—the bottles of Windex and toilet bowl cleaner gathering frost.
Moved and a little emotionally jarred, we walked only another block when a bearded man approached us. He was obviously mentally impaired and we tried to make friendly conversation although we were getting nervous. He asked us, from close proximity, if we wanted to go to the “radio store.” He said it was really close, just around the corner. We said we were headed back and needed to be on our way, but he persisted. Finally, Misty said “Let’s go,” and grabbed my arm as we ran across to the other side of the street. The bearded, wobbling man kept on his course as we walked down opposite sides of the road and I could see his breath in the air as he talked to no one.
I wasn’t sure what to make of these things then, as I am not sure now. Perhaps I need to meditate for 49 days beneath a tree. What did the Arabic woman in the Spongebob costume, the wailing young business man, the Hispanic custodian praying on the frozen ground, and the mentally-ill man in need of a friend have in common? Humanity, and suffering therein. They shared pain—pain which no one else seemed to notice or care about, let alone, attempt to alleviate. I noticed—yet did not know how to stretch my humanity out to them in those moments. The question rings on in my mind, what could I have done? For those suffering now, What can I do?