Today, I had the honor of sitting face to face with a woman I had never before met, and engaging in a deep listening practice that allowed me an intimate window into her childhood dreams, what she loves about this world, the ones who lifted her up, and ways that she loves herself. It’s a powerful thing, witnessing a small piece of another person’s existence from such a deep level, and it’s rare that we share that much intimacy with even those we know and love the most. What was clear to me within the brief time we connected was just how easy it is to see the beauty and magic in another human being with absolutely no agenda, simply basking in the delight of sharing from the heart.
What keeps us from connecting in this way with those we love? And too, what keeps us from connecting in such a deep way with people we know less, or ones we don’t know at all? All my life, I have experienced first meetings that are superficial, sharing the obligatory niceties that are the preference of our culture, and if extending into the personal, keeping the connection in the safe realms of work and family and the weather. But there have been other times in my life when a first meeting with someone penetrated my social walls, leaving me vulnerable, touched. And it is these interactions that have lingered in my mind.
In 2004, I walked the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain, an amazing ancient route that winds across the mountains and plateau of the country from east to west, ending at the Atlantic Ocean. On my first day, I had set out with my 50 pound backpack in the steady rain, insufficiently clothed for the wet cold that set in. As I climbed to the crest of the mountain over the course of many hours, the rain turned to sleet, and the conditions were so inhospitable that I couldn’t even take a moment to open my pack to retrieve some food, for fear of drenching all of my possessions. I trudged along, exhausted, hungry, cold, and overwhelmed, and after more than twelve hours, gratefully arrived in the next town, eager for a hot meal and a good night’s sleep. The day’s conditions had brought on the sniffles, which turned into a nasty respiratory infection overnight, and upon inquiring about a pharmacy the next day, I was told that it was days away on foot. The only medicine I would be able to use was raw ginger root.
Feeling miserable, but grateful for the change in weather, I headed out to the path for another day’s walk. Staying behind to rest and recover wasn’t an option, as the pilgrim refuge was only available for one night, and closed during most of the day. As I walked on, I could hardly breathe, and my throat ached. With every step, I sank deeper into self pity, and though the day was beautiful and the countryside was spectacular, all I felt was irritation. After a short time, a woman fell into step beside of me on the path. On my first day, I had already become accustomed to allowing others to pass me up, as it seemed they were all much faster and fitter than I was. I was surprised to enjoy some conversation with this woman. She was about my age, from Spain, and talked of travels in India. She was carrying only a small daypack with one change of clothes, some soap, and a towel, and it was almost embarrassing to me to consider her light load beside my own massively heavy pack. After a time of walking, we stopped to take a rest, and she offered to trade packs with me – she would happily carry mine since she was well and I was feeling so terrible. I tried to protest, but she insisted, and with a guilt as heavy as my pack, I agreed. We decided the town we’d stop in for the night, and if we were separated, we would trade packs there at the end of the day.
The tiny woman strode off into the blazing sun with my enormous bag on her back, and I shuffled along with her tiny pack on my own, sniffling, feeling more miserable than ever. All of my own self judgments came calling, and I spent much of the day feeling not only physically terrible, but fundamentally inadequate. Mixed with that was a sense of fear that this woman might disappear with everything I had to my name for the journey, including all my money and my passport, but in that moment, I had no alternative except to trust. On I walked, and as the late afternoon sun blazed, I finally found myself in the town. There, on a bench with some fellow journeyers, was the kind woman who had carried my pack – she had been patiently waiting for me, and genuinely felt grateful to be able to help me in a time of need. We traded backpacks once more, exchanged a hug, and that was it. In one day, everything I had come to expect and believe about my fellow human beings had been utterly shattered.
Since that experience, I have delighted in the opportunity to forge meaningful connections with people, sharing kindness, curiosity, and care in conversations and exchanges with people I will likely never see again. And as my own understanding of the inherent goodness in human beings continued to transform, I was gifted with more and more encounters that pushed me to trust more deeply, and to open my heart with as much presence as I could manage.
Several years following that journey on the Camino, I travelled to South America in a quest to connect with the Indigenous spiritual traditions in the Andes Mountains. At the end of a six week sojourn, I was violently assaulted and robbed in a hotel, and after I regained consciousness, I discovered that my bag had been stolen. In the midst of my panic and fear, while waiting for the police to arrive to file a report, a woman came to sit with me. I was sobbing, and she simply sat down next to me, holding me while I cried. When I could pause for a breath, I asked her, “what’s your name?” “Carolyn,” she replied. She didn’t ask any questions, she was simply with me, and her presence helped me to feel safe and cared for in one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. Just before I left with the police, she handed me some money and said, “here… I was in a similar situation once in Africa,” and that was all. Years later in the most serendipitous of circumstances, I would meet her again, and have the opportunity to offer her my gratitude and friendship. While the whole experience in La Paz was truly horrific, the beautiful gift Carolyn gave me has stayed in my heart, guiding my own goodness.
As the US feels more and more divided, and as there seems to be less and less common ground that calls us into connection with each other, it seems that these kinds of fundamental human goodness are more and more rare. Fear is rising like a tide, overtaking our hearts and minds as the powers-that-be are doing what they can to separate us. But it is truly within our power, our common ground, that change will happen. I don’t have any clear ideas about how to approach this yet, and I am staying present with this question every day: how can we come together for the greater good of all? What will it take for us to remember that we are all breathing the same air, drinking the same water, and feeling the same heart beat within our bodies? Even as families and communities are divided, and hatred swells with a fierceness I’ve never before witnessed in my life, I know in my heart that there have to be ways to return to our basic human goodness.
Will you join me in pondering these questions?