When I was a kid, about 10 or so, my mom was seeing a doctor in downtown Minneapolis. At the time we lived about 150 miles away and only had one car, so going to an appointment meant a four hour bus ride there and back. If I was caught up on my school work and wasn’t going to miss anything big, I could go along. I loved it. It meant plenty of time escape into my rather rich fantasy world. I would search the faces of fellow passengers for signs of evil plotting or scan the floor of the bus for clues to unsolved crimes. I would mull over the books I planned to write someday. I would mentally compose poems about the agony of being a 6th grader in small down America. If all that failed, I would read one of the books I had brought along (always have an emergency book). I was in heaven.
Best of all it meant, once we were in the city, I could take the glass walkways of the skyway system to the IDS Center Crystal Court, which you may recognize from this. Wearing my mom’s watch so I knew when to head back to the doctor’s office, I would stand on the second floor balcony and peer down at all those people. So many people. Where were they going, what were they doing?
One day, as I watched and wondered about the crowds below me, my inner life – so busy with books to write, mysteries to solve, worry for mother, homework to figure out, battles with my friends, boys to figure out – met the vast humanity around me. Did everyone down there have as full a head as me? Did everyone go about their days looking “normal” but full of books to write and fears for their moms and dramas with their friends? Obviously they must. That meant that the fullness of my head, the aches and the pains and the passions, were not because I was special. They were because I was human.
I felt as if the full complexity and potential and fullness and most of all “unknowableness” of humanity hit me full force and it sent me reeling. I would like to say the clouds opened at that moment and the sun poured in those hundreds of skylights. I honestly don’t remember. I do remember feeling dizzy (over dramatic as it seems now) and holding onto the railing until I got my bearings again.
I try to carry that amazement at our sameness with me. It keeps me humble. It reminds me we all live incognito. It reminds me that everyone I encounter, even those I love the most, have motives and limitations I cannot fully comprehend. Most importantly, it reminds me I am just as likely to misunderstand as to be misunderstood.
The internet a great tool for finding engaging in discussions with people whose lives are different from ours. But these discussions can quickly become shouting matches and snark fests. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking we are arguing with an inanimate computer screen or a simple bundle of ideas and beliefs. It takes conscious effort to remind ourselves we are interacting with people just as wonderfully complex, just as wounded, just as valuable as we are.
That’s the easy part. That’s the Hallmark card part. Here’s the hard part: the person at our end of the discussion can as obtuse, entrenched and mean-spirited as the faceless jackass out there in the ether. We are all someone’s jackass.
I’ll admit to engaging in what my daughter calls “rage reading.” I get irritated by life or slapped down by someone I can’t slap back and I hear the call of certain websites. I am itching for a fight, and on the internet it’s easy to find. If I am not careful, I can waste hours reading article after article, scrolling through comment sections. I even, against all my better instincts, roll up my sleeves and enter the fray.
I become someone else’s jackass.
The worst part is it never makes me feel better. It’s like picking at a scab. It feels oh so god for such a short moment. But then I need to do it some more, and then more and soon I have made things worse and am bloody and sore.
I am trying to catch myself sooner. I try to see my urge to rage read as a symptom and deal with the pain behind it. I try to remember to walk away before I comment. I try to imagine the person behind what I am reading, to hear what they are saying and to see if I can hear what they are not.
Most importantly, I try to get out of my own head and my own house. I surround myself with people. Real living, breathing people not avatars and screen names. Not disembodied ideas and opinions. Real people. And I take a moment to recreate the sense of awe and wonder I experienced back in the Crystal Court. What a piece of work we are, indeed.
And I remind myself that everyone, including me is, to paraphrase Captain Jack Sparrow, doing what’s right by them. We can’t expect more than that.