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A month in New York City provides more than enough food for thought for a meditator. There is no avoiding people in the city that never sleeps, and on every street, avenue, and subway all manifestations of human nature, good or bad, are on display. Here are three subway stories for starters.
Story 1 The Family
I was sitting opposite a family – the elderly mom and dad sitting close to each other, and the adult daughter standing up next to them. They were being companionable, not chatting very much if at all, but they looked sweet together. I wondered whether the parents had come to visit the daughter, or the daughter had come to visit the parents, or whether they all lived in NYC. I wondered what they all did and whether there were other children in the family. I can’t remember what else I wondered about, but it kept me occupied for at least two subway stops.
Then we reached 42nd Street and the daughter got off. She didn’t say goodbye to her parents! That’s odd, I thought. Bit rude. Or … and this was a bit of a blow … maybe she wasn’t their daughter after all!
Ah well, they still made an adorable couple. Obviously been together for years as they felt no need to make small talk. Probably still had a daughter somewhere. Maybe a dog too.
But when we reached 28th Street, the husband just stood up and left — without so much as a backward glance at his wife of 30 years! That’s odd, I thought. Bit rude! Or … and this was now not just a blow but an entire dismantling of my subway reality … maybe they weren’t a couple after all!!!
Hmmm. I don’t know about you (well, I do a bit), but I am doing this kind of thing all the time. We are making up stories about other people, and ourselves for that matter, but then believing them as if they were the truth. Always believing whatever appears to us, which just so happens to be the same as whatever it is we are unknowingly projecting with our thoughts.
This story and its characters turned out to be completely unreal, but all felt perfectly real at the time. How many of our daily stories are actually real? What are we doing all day long?!!
Story 2 “You are a sick woman!”
Story 1 was a fabricated narrative for sure, which left me feeling slightly foolish; but no real harm was done, and I didn’t inflict my “truth” on others. This was not the case in this second story.
Opposite me was a man and a woman (they were canoodling so I felt safe in assuming they were a couple), and next to the girlfriend (Woman 1) was another woman (Woman 2).
The couple were chatting away while Woman 2 was contentedly minding her own business and, like 95% of the rest of the carriage, playing with her phone. All was fine. All was peaceful.
Then Woman 1, wanting to point out where they were going, accidentally waved her hand in Woman 2’s face. Woman 2 not unreasonably pushed her hand away without looking up from her phone.
Woman 1 made a face at her boyfriend, but was otherwise ready to let it go. But he wasn’t. He leaned over and said, “What do you think you are doing, pushing my girlfriend’s hand away like that?!”
Surprised, Woman 2 said it had been in her face, and in the way of her and her texting.
“I don’t care!” said the man. “That was incredibly rude”. Anyway, I will now spare you the details of what they said, but the whole carriage, including Woman 1, started to pay even more attention to their phones as this rapidly escalated into a loud argument.
Woman 1, embarrassed, put her hand on the boyfriend’s knee to try and pacify him, but he wasn’t having it, the bit now between his teeth. And instead of just saying sorry or nothing at all, Woman 2 was giving back as good as she got.
Visibly agitated, they stopped and stared ahead of them for a few moments. Peace at last, the rest of us fervently hoped, as we surreptitiously resumed some eye contact.
But then Woman 2 leaned over, having thought of something really juicy to say, and let it rip.
Within the time frame of two subway stops, two strangers had become two mortal enemies — the man was standing up and yelling at her, “You are a sick woman!”
Luckily, he had to get off at his stop. But his anger went with him; he was still fuming as he walked past the window.
The two women sat there right next to each other in silence. Woman 1 looked like she was about to cry. I wanted them to turn to each other and say, “Sorry about that! Bit over the top.” But they didn’t. They just looked miserable. All three of those people’s mornings were ruined. That may not even be the only time anger arose for them that day. And it could all have been so easily avoided.
This was just one of million stories of anger playing themselves out all over the city and all over the world. Ruining people’s enjoyment. Ruining relationships. Exaggerating everything into such ugliness. Causing such harm. And for what? Where was the truth in any of that? To those in the carriage not under the deception of anger, for example, there was nothing believable about that narrative at all.
Story 3 The old lady fallen on hard times
Meanwhile, while the anger narratives play out on every street and subway, the stories worth paying attention to if we want to develop positive minds are instead ignored.
A woman in her seventies, I would guess, got onto the subway and started hesitantly to tell us her story. “I am very sorry to be doing this, but I never expected at my age to be staying in a shelter.”
She lived with her husband for many years and had a job just like everyone else. But he fell very ill and, having no children, she left work to take care of him. They spent all their money, and then he died, a month ago. And she realized she had nothing. That she was homeless.
This story was so so sad, I was deeply moved. I gave her some money and a smile, and her eyes brimmed with tears.
The reality is that she is our kind mother, she is just like us, and she has fallen on hard times and is deserving of our love and concern. She could have been me. She could have been you. We could be her. If I so much as lost my phone, wallet, or way, for example, or if I felt faint, I would expect the people around me to be sympathetic if I asked for help. But everyone in that carriage was way too immersed in their phone or studying the floor to even look at this entirely lost old woman. Not one person gave her money. Not one person said, “I’m so sorry.”
Then I got to wondering, because I know these people are not bad people, what if you had been sitting next to her in a doctor’s waiting room or at a friend’s funeral when she told you her story? Would you not say, “I’m so sorry” then, and mean it? What line, in other words, do people have to fall below to become invisible?
One homeless man, head bowed, had a cardboard sign saying, “I am invisible.”
In India, a friend from Calcutta was telling me, most people don’t see the huge numbers of destitute street children, and, if they do, they look through them or down on them. And you wonder how anyone could ever become that desensitized, you think, “That could never happen in my country! Those children would be cared for!” Well, guess what, it is happening in my country, it is happening right under my nose.
(Covid update: So many of our neighbors are unhoused and the problem is increasing — more than one eviction every 9 seconds in the USA even before the pandemic. Please hold them in your hearts and pray. No one expects to end up homeless –freezing, feeling ill, nowhere to go, nowhere to rest. These hardships deserve so much compassion, we would want compassion! Yet for some reason our unhoused neighbors, whether young or old, people just like us, are mainly ignored or even the objects of contempt.)
Where is the shared humanity? Let’s not get started on our unkindness to other species – what about man’s inhumanity to man? We are better than this of course, much better. And if we could just learn to follow our better instincts, live in accordance with our Buddha nature, there would be no more loud arguments on the subway, no more callous disregard of an old lady’s despair.
Over to you.