The barista’s face flushed from pink to red. My friends tried not to laugh too loudly, but they were failing. It was one of those situations where you open your mouth not really believing you’re about to say what you’re about to say, but then it happens—what you’ve been thinking tumbles out of you like a pack of creepy circus clowns emptied out of their too-small car.
“You are so cute!” I said to the man behind the counter. He was. I meant it. He was tall with fair skin, lovely cornflower blue eyes, and an earnest face. I pegged him coming from Iowa or Oklahoma, one of those places where the people seem to spring from the crops freshly scrubbed and model ready. The barista had a thick head of blonde hair and a neatly trimmed beard to match. Except that his hair was more gold than blonde, truthfully, the kind of hair described in fairy tales as spun gold, which you know is overwrought and impossible even by fairy tale standards, but you buy into it all the same.
I’d like to hide behind the excuse that this was a blurt, a bit of unintentional word vomit, but the reality was that I felt compelled to say it.
“This might seem weird or random,” I began as a way of softening the awkwardness (why bother at that point? I mean, c’mon), as if I were trying to sound some social warning signal: NOT A FREAK! NOT A FREAK! NOT A FREAK! And then I said it. I said what I imagine many, many women and men have thought coming into this small café, this one coffee place out of a zillion other java spots in the city.
He continued blushing and started to laugh. He held up his left hand to show a shiny metal circle, I showed him the one on my own left hand. It wasn’t about that, about an agenda or a desire for something more than what was possible in that moment.
“He needed to know!” I said to my friends after we had gotten our drinks and sat down. They were still laughing and teasing me, but it was the only way I could describe my impulse. He deserved to feel good about himself, I thought; he deserved to have a laugh and feel a little flattered; he deserved to know he had been seen, really seen.
This, I have realized lately, is my thing (as the kiddos say). It is true that we all struggle, we all suffer, we all carry shame and regret, we all want joy and peace and a money tree growing in our backyards. We also all want to be seen. We want to know our existence matters, not in a higher-purpose kind of way (thought that’s part of it for many of us), but on a very foundational level: You are HERE. How marvelous! What a gift it is that you share this world with the rest of us.
I can sound very Zen and evolved and spiritually enlightened about this because I have yet to master what I preach. This is the seduction of ideas and concepts—they wink at you from the paper, they feel smooth like silky strands of corn against your skin, they never make you look fat. And then you take those ideas out for a spin, you drive them around a bit and that’s where you find out what they and you are made of. Putting anything into practice—an exercise routine, a new budget, a vow to quit stalking your ex on Facebook—takes diligence, care, and courage because it’s change, it’s letting go of something familiar and comforting (even if it was unhealthy) and embracing what’s potentially life-shiftin, molecule-rearranging.
I don’t make the rules, I only know them to be true.
And I know I want this—to really see people—because I know I want this so much for myself. It’s selfish, I admit, though this is the basis for a lot of our most lasting innovations like, I don’t know, Democracy or the fork.
I haven’t mastered this whole seeing people business because it’s hard. I mean, duh, right? I am a tiny, fallible type creature with my own pain and anger and jealousy and pettiness and hurt, which I often don’t want people to see and it troubles me terribly to see it in others. I don’t always meet the eyes of the homeless woman sitting outside the T. I don’t want to acknowledge the racist asshole in the grocery line behind me making rude comments under his breath at the expense of the Asian cashier. I’d rather not look too closely at the little boy in the hospital bed.
This is why there is only one Pema Chodron, one Mother Theresa, one Gandi, I joke with my friends. They are operating on a whole other plain of existence, I am not.
Or maybe somewhere along the way they got tired of binging on the sugar high that comes when you only see the light-filled and lovely, the ones that are easy to look on because they are all rounded out with seemingly endless deposits of compassion and kindness and love. Maybe they decided that the only way to show up in the world was to also see the messy lives, the broken lives, the lives cobbled out of leaky buckets and rusted metal who also deserve to be seen, to know: You are HERE. How marvelous! They knew this was key, necessary even, and if they were afraid they pushed through it, probably saying “So what? I see your fear, you see mine. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get into the real business of living.”
Seeing is a commitment to witnessing. It is a promise you make to someone that you will acknowledge their fundamental humanness, not just when it’s convenient or nice, but when it is ugly and fraying at the seams. And that means this seeing one another can be a terrible burden, it can crack us open and break us down. It can scar us and change us in ways that we never dreamed possible.
Or it can be a gift, a miracle, it can be your thing and with that, it just might be everything.