Last Friday, as I was rushing for work and walking into the subway station on East 86th street, I was so lost in my own world and thoughts that I did not see a man coming from the opposite side at the same turnstile where I was about to swipe my card. I noticed that only after swiping my metro card. Not even after swiping, I actually saw that when I had moved turnstile in to enter the station and came in less than an arm’s distance from that man. Now I saw that he was blind and that he was now inching back to make room for me to move forward. I could not feel more shamed of myself, of my absentmindedness. This was so not mindful living. That man began doing without having any eyes, what I could not do, with two perfectly functioning eyes. A woman now assisted him in making the exit. She gave me a look of contempt, which I clearly deserved. These few seconds now were the moments of very high awareness and consciousness for me. I can never forget the faces of that man and the woman who assisted him.
Feeling awful about this, I got into thinking about the cloud of our personal thoughts that surrounds us, ALL the time when we walk around in New York City. The things that are allowed to be a part of this cloud are devices – our cell phones, our e-readers, our music players. We don’t really lift our heads up or take our eyes off our devices or books to make an eye contact. Even when neither of the devices are engaging, our thoughts are still elsewhere. We say New York is a melting pot of cultures, but we don’t even know the language of the person sitting next to us in the subway because Spotify is streaming into our ears, screening off any linguistic treat from commuters. From the time we leave our apartment in the morning, till the time we hit the bed in the night, we must be coming across at least 30 new faces ( no Maths done), but can we recall even five of those faces when our head lands on pillow for a good night sleep?
There was another face I will never forget. Few days ago, I was taking a cross town bus from west side to east side ( I don’t take buses otherwise ) and the seat to next to me was empty. A noticed a really old woman approaching towards this seat. I just smiled, which I usually do when I see someone coming towards me. Not a big wide grin, but just a moderate smile of acknowledgement. And I resumed reading the Metro News. The woman took seat and said, “Thank you for your smile”. I can’t even forget the tone and warmth of that voice. There are many people of her age who probably didn’t grow up in a time of wired humans. For them, it’s hard to comprehend this new generation that is wired in an individual virtual cloud. So possibly, it was a pleasant surprise for her to receive smiling acknowledgment of her existence from a random stranger. And it was a surprise for me, for I did nothing extraordinarily out of my way to please here, I did what I usually did.
I know that it might be too much to ask from urban dwellers to always stay in the present and notice every human they see and make eye contact with everyone. That will be a lot of visual information to process each day. But that done in moderation might make each day a more pleasant one as the researchers Nicholas Epley and and Juliana Schroeder found in their research at University of Chicago, which I still believe is nothing earth shattering. Often, the clouds are full of thoughts about past and present. Engaging with strangers help us distract from them and get back in present, at least for time. Looking in other’s eyes and seeing their faces make us more empathetic towards them because we begin to see them as humans and not as objects dotting our way to some destination. Who knows, you might not need to go to Match.com or OkCupid, because the person you were looking for was sitting right next to you on the Q train to Times Square, if only you two had allowed each other in your virtual clouds.
So, will you try to recall five faces tonight?