There are a lot of people in the world. If we were to measure how many people on average we come into contact with every day in restaurants, at work, at school, in the grocery store, etc. I think that we would be amazed. All of us at one time or another (or perhaps all the time) are guilty of tunnel-vision and looking over those who are so close. We become all consumed with our schedules and personal concerns and often miss the people that are right in front of us. How much of life are we completely ignorant of every day?
The movie Avatar is perhaps one of the most poetic stories with this theme. When members of the tribe greeted each other, they would use the phrase “I see you”. This statement had more meaning than a simple, “I notice you standing in front of me.” It held more of the meaning, “I see who you are, and you have my full attention.” When I think about the void that so many people have in their lives and the void that I have struggled to fill in my own life, there is an ache when I hear this statement. So often, I long for someone to take the time to see me like that. I want someone to acknowledge that I am worth being truly seen.
At my job, customer service is a very high priority and I was recently reviewed by my boss. Probably half of the items that we are graded on involve how we engage the customer in conversation and make them feel special. I can’t help but think about how much that sounds like what we as Christians should be doing. When we are conducting transactions for people, we may have less than three minutes to make an impact in their lives. However, beyond the sales talks and the graded reviews, how much of an opportunity do I have every day to make a difference in so many peoples’ lives? Some people come in every day; others I will see only once and then they leave to live a life that I will never know a further thing about. What if in those three minutes, I could provide the one thing their heart deeply longs for: to be seen? They may never remember me, but it is difficult to forget the warmth a heart feels when it has been acknowledged in a real way.
I was reading a book tonight for my class, and one of the people we are studying this week is Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was a contemporary Catholic priest and university professor among other things. He is a fascinating study and the books he has written are deep and will leave a reader in thought for a long time. However, one of the most stunning things that someone said about him is this: “He approached me, as he approached everyone he met, as if I were the most interesting person he’d ever met.” What a compliment. All of us want to know people like this. In my mind, there is no attitude more like Jesus.
On my commute to work every day, I pass a homeless man selling newspapers on the side of the road. I’m sure a lot of people pass by him every day, not giving him a second thought. Every day I see him, rain or shine, faithfully on the corner. I wonder what his story is. At lunchtime a couple weeks ago he had switched corners and I saw him while I was walking to get some food. He had recognized me from seeing me every day, and we talked for a few seconds before I continued on my way. Every day I cannot help but think about him. I wish I would have offered him food. I wish I would have stood there just a couple minutes longer. There is something about this man that intrigues me so deeply. And then I began to wonder what Jesus might look like in everyday life. Have I somehow failed Him by walking on by?
When I lived in Kansas, I used to go through McDonalds a lot. Eventually, everyone working the drive-thru knew me, and we would have quick conversations every day. Having worked at McDonalds myself a few years ago, I know what it’s like to feel like every customer sees himself as better than the employee, flaunting the attitude of, “I would never work fast-food, but I eat here and I need you to remember that I always get the cheeseburger without onions, substitute mayo and an extra slice of cheese. However, don’t put too much mayo on it, or I will come back and rip your head off for getting it wrong, because your position as a fast food worker means you have a low IQ and therefore I am obligated to remind you of it every time I see you (and use long run-on sentences).” Occasionally we would get the customers who gave us smiles of sympathy, seeming to say, “I’m sorry that you’re not smart enough to have a real job.” In actuality, fast food is not the easiest job I’ve ever had, and some very intelligent people work there. Every employee has a name, a family, and a history, yet so many people pick up food and treat them like they are less than human. I think that there are a lot of people in jobs like the one I just described.
It amazes me how much can be accomplished through genuine eye contact. They say that the eyes are the window to the soul. Body language experts talk about the importance of the eyes in determining authenticity. Social protocol dictates that when talking to others, confident people will look the other person in the eyes and maintain an engaging gaze. When my eyes meet the eyes of someone else, the tribal statement from Avatar makes sense: “I see you.” Suddenly that person is more than just a means to an end or another customer that needs assistance. He becomes another human being entering my world for a brief moment in time. He has a name and a story. I have this opportunity to encourage or dishearten, to give hope or to disappoint. I could be one more person among many who pass by without a thought, or I could be the only one in a long time who sees him for who he is and treats him like he is the “most interesting person” that I have ever met.
I recently had an extremely negative gas station experience. I was looking for a nightlight for my new kitten, and being the night before black Friday, Walmart was packed and no other store was open. My mom advised me to stop at gas stations and ask to see if any had one that I could buy. I stopped at the one by my apartment complex and saw that they were selling blankets and other related materials, so I thought by chance they might be selling nightlights. As I approached the man behind the counter and presented my question, he looked at me like I was the biggest idiot to have ever stepped foot in his presence and decided to take that moment to give me a lesson on why. I left the gas station, sat down in my car, and burst into tears. It was humiliating. Although I had no reason to feel ashamed of myself, one person was the final straw in what had already been a difficult day.
If someone could so easily strip me of my dignity, surely it is not that difficult to clothe someone with dignity. We have countless opportunities every day to do so, and we rarely recognize the subtle choices we so frivolously make when they are presented to us. In the case of the visit to the gas station, I had just finished a very difficult conversation with someone and was completely exhausted and emotionally drained. What if that man had met me with kindness, and perhaps suggested another place that I might be able to find what I was looking for? A simple smile would have made all the difference for me that night, and rather than push me off the cliff of my composure, he would have restored it. It was something so simple, but could have been so healing. Instead his words damaged me.
This time of year we think of Santa, and all the little kids dream of going to the mall and sitting on his lap for a couple minutes to tell him what they want for Christmas. It’s amazing the smiles the children walk away with as they had Santa’s undivided attention for just a short time. As adults, we aren’t so different from children in our need for someone’s undivided interest and care. I can’t help but wonder at the correlation between the picture of Santa with the children and our heavenly Father and His children. I have experienced the healing of God as I sat in His presence, full of His undivided attention and care. I will never wrap my mind around His love for every single one of the billions of people in the world, and it blows my mind to think about how He knows every single detail of every person’s life. However, it isn’t just knowledge for Him; He truly and deeply loves them. What if we saw every person that came into our lives as a person who is deeply loved by God. He sees her heart, her broken dreams, and the little things that she is concerned about. Even if I only have the opportunity to be a part of her life for three short minutes at work, I am stepping into the holy ground of someone else’s experience with God. The moment may be very unholy and normal, but there is nothing common about the convergence of two journeys. Whether or not she tells me her story is irrelevant. Did I contribute to her reason to have joy? Did she walk away having experienced a little piece of heaven?
As I go through life, I often wonder if people see me. As a single person, it can get rather discouraging to go through an entire day being overlooked by everyone I saw. Life can be a lonely venture, especially during certain seasons. I want to live my days giving others a reason to hope. I don’t want to be guilty of tunnel-vision, going through life pursing a dream on the horizon with nothing to lose. Yesterday as I was driving to work I saw the worst accident I have ever seen. The car was completely smashed in, and at least one person experienced their last day on earth. He probably woke up that morning, got dressed, ate breakfast, and jumped in his car to head to work. Just like me. However, for him, another day never came. Suddenly and unexpectedly everything was over. That image still haunts me now. If on my way to work tomorrow, I were to be that person, what would people remember about how I lived until that day? Even though none of my grandiose dreams were realized and my current goals were left unfulfilled, what would be my legacy, my fingerprint on their lives? Would my coworker remember how I made her feel like she was the most interesting person I had ever met? Would my family be inspired by the love in my heart, even through the most difficult of times?
There are countless people walking in and out of our lives every day, silently crying out, “Do you see me?” Will you be the one to look around and see beyond the surface and recognize the truth between the lines? What will be your legacy?