Look at everybody! Just look at them! Doing things. Saying things. Living their lives. Who are they all? What are they thinking? Don’t they realise you’re here? Right in front of them? Living your life, full of all the you things? Don’t they realise they’re background noise to all the things you’re dealing with? Can’t they see you dealing?
And sure, they’re dealing, too, and until there’s a scene in the movie where the you things intersect with the them things, we’re all just living adjacently. But, when you think about it, it’s just a matter of emphasis. So here’s a little experiment. Take the emphasis off the you things for a bit. Refocus it on them. See what happens. This is a Public Service Announcement.
Focus on the laughter. How it changes a person’s whole face. Is a laughing face the truest version of a face? Open and generous and responsive, it’s hard to watch without feeling your own face changing, a kind of built-in laughter empathy passing through you like a fog.
Watch the teachers. A person in a cafe teaching a trainee how to use the machine. A parent teaching a kid to ride a bike. Good teachers are patient and kind and careful. Often, that moment where a person teaches another person a thing will never be forgotten. Sometimes, the lesson will outlive both the person doing the teaching and the person being taught.
Overhearing people’s conversations is a great way to take the emphasis off your own life. Listen. Lives are happening all around you. It’s a fact you know, but sometimes it’s nice to be reminded. In the library I’m writing this in, a bloke walked past on a phone just before, saying “That’s not actually what I said Angela”. He sounded quite cross and I was bit worried about Angela to be honest, but now he’s taken the call outside and I can see him laughing along with her as he balances along a row of bricks as though it’s a tightrope. He and Angela are going to be okay. For now anyway.
How great is it on summer nights when people leave their front doors open and you’re out walking to dog or whatever but for three precious seconds you accidentally see down their hall, the light belting off the floorboards, a mess of toys in a lounge room, a child riding a trike from one side of the house to the other, and this is someone’s childhood right here. This is someone’s front door, open to the world, as a stranger walks past with a dog.
Look at the bold people, the exciting people, the provocative people. The brave dressers, the loud talkers, the opinionated, the conscientious objectors, the boundary pushers. Imagine yourself into their lives for a moment. Feel the weight of the difference.
And the quiet ones. The watchful ones. Try that on for size. Imagine your way into the parts of other people that are the most foreign to you and feel yourself back at the start line. That’s you back there. Hello.
Sit in a public space, a train or a bus or a cafe or a library, and look around you. Who’s your favourite? Who most needs someone to talk to them? Who’s got a pet who loves them? If everyone disappeared in an instant except for the people in this space: who will you stand next to? Who will fall in love with who? Who’s your biggest obstacle? Which one can cook? Who’s the talker? Who’s everyone going to underestimate?
In your own life, not many people have been around forever. You met them when you met them. Or did you? Had you walked past some of them without knowing? Had you “excuse me”d a person who would one day become your friend? There’s no way of telling, not really, which means: all around you, all the time, are potential friends.
People are confusing and terrible and wonderful and hilarious and complicated and maybe so are you. Trying someone else’s life on for size, even if only for the moment you get a glimpse down their hallway, can be really good for your life health. So if you’re ever getting a bit sick of yourself, take the dog for a walk. Be the background noise to all the stuff other people are dealing with. Change the emphasis. This has been a Public Service Announcement.
This was originally a column in The Big Issue. Buy the magazine on the streets from a vendor why don’t you!