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Helping to Clear a Path

I attended a work conference last week that was focused on a project that all community colleges are engaged in right now. The overall point of it is to make the process of getting into and through two-year college a bit easier and more efficient for all students, especially those who have been ignored along the way. Like most large institutions, the educational system is burdened by the complications that accompany progress, technology, and a changing economy. A solution to one problem often creates another one and the ripple effect has resulted in a system that is burdensome and complex. Fortunately, community colleges all over the country are working on making what we do more user friendly and more focused on helping rather than hindering. But taking it apart and doing it better is a little like playing pick-up sticks in the dark.

It’s intriguing to be working on a project like this because it requires me to call on lots of different parts of myself—creativity and empathy, chief among them. And, it makes me realize that I don’t normally spend a lot of time thinking about how to make things smoother and more accessible for other people. Personally, of course, I like it when I don’t feel the barriers of a complex system. Whether it's the doctor's office or the DMV or the utility company, I feel much better about what I'm doing if I feel genuinely welcomed.

The dominoes continue to tip until we realize how connected we all are all the time.

Looking at the world from someone else’s perspective is the core of empathy, of course, but most of us are usually too focused on our own worlds to even remember to think about someone else’s. And I don’t even mean that in a critical way. Each of our lives is full and complicated and even harrowing at times. It’s all we can do to get through what is set before us. The notion of working on making someone else’s path clearer sounds like a good idea, but managing that thought all the way to fruition usually feels exhausting.

But what if we did do that, even a little bit every day? What if every day each one of us made a point to make someone else’s life easier? I’m not talking about rescuing strangers. I’m just thinking about the power of looking around us at the people we see daily. What small thing could I do to help that guy? Even remembering something that someone else is struggling with is a way to help them cope. It validates what’s on their minds and helps them feel less alone.

Getting older is a weird thing. Every day feels brand new and totally familiar at the same time. I feel comfortable enough with myself these days to be able to think about the person next to me for longer than I used to. It doesn’t kill me to listen to her story, to bring her coffee, to ask about her family. It brings us together and makes us feel connected, even for a moment. But, if we’re lucky, that moment touches her enough that she feels comforted, too. Later, she might reach out a hand to someone else and the dominoes continue to tip until we realize how connected we all are all the time.

And that’s the point. We have each other. We are each other’s greatest resource. We can help clear a path for the person who is trudging behind us or open a door for the person who feels locked out. We can say it’s the system that does it and that the system is bigger than all of us. But at its core the system is us. If it gets too bureaucratic and too mechanistic, it’s humans who did it and humans who need to fix it. The fix may feel difficult and cumbersome, but it is possible. We can listen, we can act, we can reach out a hand. I want to pay closer attention now to the people I meet. I want to try and see the world as they see it—to imagine the barriers that they feel and to help move them out of the way. It’s being humans together and it's how it should be, without question.

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