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What We Bring To The World

One semester when I was teaching, a young woman sat in the front row of my class on the first day and glared at me the whole time I was lecturing. Every day it was the same thing, and it bugged me. I would smile at her and try to chat with her after class, and mostly I tried to figure out what I was saying or doing that was making her frown at me every day all throughout my class. A couple of weeks into the semester, she came in wearing glasses.

“I finally got new glasses,” she said as she passed by me on her way to a desk further back in the room. “My other pair broke and I couldn’t see a thing until I got these.” That was it. Her glowering had nothing to do with me—a thought that had never crossed my mind. The whole time I was trying to figure out why she didn’t like me or my class, I never imagined that her sneering was unrelated to me. It’s a funny little story, but it reminds me that we have no idea what all is going on with the people we meet in our lives—nor do they know anything about what we’re feeling or thinking or seeing.

I think the pandemic has made me hyper-aware of the delicate nature of life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently as we near the end of the pandemic and begin to re-connect with each other in person. Somehow, not being in public face-to-face for so long has made me want to be more aware of what I bring with me when I interact with people in real life. Am I in a bad mood? Am I feeling shy or tired? What do I talk about when I've been cooped up at home for so long? After so many months of no real human energy outside my bubble, I’ve lost track of some of my social awareness, and I'm a little shaky about my skills. It makes me think that this could be a chance to re-enter the world with more intention and attention—not just slide through my connections with other people as unconsciously as I used to.

I’m not planning to change who I am, nor am I dismissing the ways I naturally interact with other people. I’m just feeling the need to pay attention to what I bring to the outside world. Part of it, I think, is simply being present—something I often attempt, but don’t always achieve. If I’m busy at work or have something on my mind, I rarely switch gears and just focus on the person in front of me. Instead of really listening, asking them questions, focusing on the moment, I’m often thinking of what I should be doing or what I might say next. My thoughts are frequently in another place and another time—it’s just what happens when we have too many things scheduled into too few slots.

But the post-pandemic world feels like a chance to bring myself more fully to the connections I have with other people and maybe even to myself. It seems like the perfect opportunity to clear my head a little and not be trying to do 10 things at once. I keep imagining what it would be like if I didn’t have a to-do list perpetually running in my head like a CNN news ticker. Sometimes, even if I want to have a more authentic conversation with someone—or stop long enough to share something real from my life—I worry in the back of my mind that I don’t have the time or the energy.

I haven’t always been successful at my efforts to be more present in the world because everything keeps moving rapidly and it's easy to just go through the motions. My impending retirement will make it all easier, I know, but it will still take some practice. I think the pandemic has made me hyper-aware of the delicate nature of life. It’s made me want to relish so much more and just be where I am when I’m there.

Who knows how these big ideas will really turn out? But they’re in my mind right now—just trying to be aware of what I am bringing to each situation and being in it while I’m there. I'm hoping to avoid second-guessing what's going on with someone else, as I did with my student, and instead share my real feelings or ask them theirs. Getting older is such a reminder to appreciate the poignancy of every interaction. This is my time to sit with what’s here in front of me and appreciate this moment. In so many ways, it is much simpler than it seems.


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