Learning From Strangers

Learning is what remains after we have passed out of school or college. An open heart with arms wide open on a road that doesn’t have a U-turn outside of our comfort zone will lead us to places we never knew could exist. When we are pushed past our limits, when we jump over boundaries and are faced with the foreign and unknown, we begin to see things differently. Perhaps, more clearly. We suffer and that suffering fuels our growth.

It’s just not the teachers that teach us, the preachers that lead us or the parents that guide us, there are lessons everywhere if you are receptive. In stares that linger for a moment extra, in goodbyes that follow back, in comforting hugs, in deep sighs and clamorous scoffs, and in the scenes of the surroundings. Maybe, the universe wants to be noticed so that it could teach us.

The good news is that it doesn’t matter how bright we are and we don’t have to enroll or pay a fee. All we have to do is be ready to learn for the session always goes on day and day out.

I was reminded again of this last month when a stranger helped me change the way I look at others.

I was returning home after my morning jog and this old man who I had never seen before stopped me and smiled. He asked me how I was doing, what did I do for a living, and all other general questions. After he was done asking, he talked about himself, his family, primarily his son and things he wanted to do at his ripe age. The same thing started to happen every day – he would stop me, smile and talk to me for a few minutes. One day, I was in a hurry and he appeared to talk to me.

I snapped, “Sorry, uncle. Not today.”

He said, “Just for a moment, please?”

I tried to walk past him but he stopped me. I almost shoved him on the ground before he said, “You remind me of my son who died in a car crash two months back. Please, talk to me.”

His words were heavy and lingered on the air before piercing my ears and caused a sharp jerk in my heart. All this while I had judged him poorly and wrongly. I had thought he was erratic and a loner whose family had abandoned him years ago because he couldn’t quit his habit of alcoholism.

We often project our stories onto the lives of others.

The guy in the traffic who cut us off isn’t a good friend rushing to the hospital to see his friend. He’s an asshole. The lady at the reservation counter of an airport is clumsy and distracted. Little, do we know, her mother has been diagnosed with cancer and she doesn’t know how will she pay for the treatment. The waitress who was rude when we changed our order. We think she’s a mean and an arrogant bitch but she’s going through a divorce with her husband fighting for the custody of their only child. The list goes on and so are our projections of their realities and their actual realities.

These people who we don’t know have stories and secrets of their own which we will never know. So, we project our best guess i.e. we project our reality onto them. We fill in the blanks of their lives. We tell ourselves a quick story without listening to them and don’t allow them a chance to proofread. This distorted version is shared among our friends while the real version remains buried in their minds. We are adept at making assumptions and not connections. We chose to answer without even asking the questions.

Emotions that are displayed are seldom the emotions felt within. They can only hint us to take that step forward and find what’s really there and when we do, we’ll learn and never forget.

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Girish Dutt Shukla

Author of Maroon in a sky of blue

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