Tuesday. The time was 5:15, and I was waiting – as I often do – for the Route 16 bus to pick me up from the station by my office. The wind was blowing, and some of the powdered snow which it had swept from the roof of the bus shelter was now stinging my face. I was alone at the stop, wearing my red Sony headphones and listening to Breathe Quietly, by Mostapace. I often use the half hour or so before the bus arrives to clear my head, meditate, and practice mindfulness. It’s a great way to destress from the day; even though I love my job, none of us are meant to sit in a cube for hours on end.
Something you never really notice until you’re observing the present moment is the different frequencies at which turn signals blink. Our mind rarely has any reason to notice little things like this. Some blink rather quickly, some much slower, and a few don’t blink at all. If you stare long enough, the pattern becomes hypnotic.
There’s something about dusk that imbues everything with profound depth. Right before the sun goes down, when the shadows are long and the darkness begins creeping into the corners, it’s almost as if the world gains another dimension. As I sat paralyzed by the beauty of the moment, I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye.
Good rmgtgh rfis shrfbf bus stop mhhrfrhmhfr rhf –
I took off my headphones. An emaciated woman in her late forties stood before me, her artifical blonde hair caught beneath the strap of the bag she carried over her shoulder.
“Good thing you’re here, we’re both here at the bus stop together, very lucky, almost like a dream!”
“Uh… yes, it’s a good thing,” I stammered, trying to make sense of what she had just told me.
“You weren’t here earlier, did you miss your flight? I missed the last one that was here. You have your place where you work up here, where is that? Is that why you’re at the bus?”
She was pawing at a gaudy cotton bandage on her middle finger, pulling it off and then placing it back on. The adhesive had long worn out, and she was holding it to her finger with the use of the other two straddling it.
“I work at CA Technologies,” I said, slightly confused. “Why are you up here?”
She continued speaking at a breakneck pace.
“King Soopers and Wal-Mart you know, you go to the store and usually it’s about what kind of shampoo do you use but today it was just about buying food. You know? It’s either shampoo or food. But today I also bought some candy. My nephews are 25 and 27 and they’re army guys. You know those… those clocks? Those clocks – the old ones that you put candy into? You know every day you put a piece of candy on it for Christmas? I got some of those for Christmas and Saint Nicholas Day. I didn’t buy the candy today though. Do you know about Saint Nicholas Day? It was invented by Germany because everybody was poor, and sick, and dead. It’s December 6th so I’ve got to go get the mail for them so they can get them before Saint Nicholas Day. Oh, what are they called? Those clock things?”
It slowly began to dawn on me that the woman was talking about an Advent Calendar. I reasoned that she was buying them for her kids who were serving in the Army. Her word salad suggested perhaps some kind of advanced schizophrenia or early onset Alzheimer’s. She didn’t seem aware of how nonsensical she sounded, so I did my best to understand.
“An advent calendar,” I said.
“No, no, for Saint Nicholas day.”
I stopped myself before I responded. I knew this was an argument I couldn’t win. As she continued her compulsive speaking, I pointed at the bus cresting the hill and used it as an opportunity to change the subject. I cleared my throat and spoke.
“There it is!” I said.
“Good for you, you found it! Thank you very much!”
“You’re welcome,” I responded, smiling. I said a quick hello to the bus driver and took a seat in the middle of the bus. The woman sat right at the front of the bus, next to the driver.
She began speaking to nobody in particular.
“They’re really long knives. You get them in the kitchen and then they’re like an inch long. They are really sharp for chopping. I got this two weeks ago, on Thanksgiving” she said, pointing at her finger. She then locked eyes with a Hispanic man on the other side of the aisle.
“Do you want to see my Christmas clocks?”
The man responded kindly. “Sure, I would love to.”
The woman reached into her bag, producing an advent calendar and two bubble mailer envelopes. She handed the calendar to the man, speaking about her kids. I didn’t catch much of what she said, but the man smiled throughout, showing genuine interest.
“You can get a box of one hundred of these for a dollar,” she said, handing the man one of the envelopes and taking back her calendar. “Here, you keep that one so you can mail something to somebody too.”
The man took it from the woman, thanking her for her kindness. She continued to speak until the next stop. She thanked the bus driver, using a name that was almost assuredly not his, and hopped down the stairs to the street below. The hispanic man folded up his new envelope and placed it in his bag.
It was a dreamlike experience. The combination of unintelligible speech and looming darkness felt otherworldly. But despite the strange nature of the events, I learned quite a lot about social interaction, and people.
Most of the people around the woman suspended judgment in an effort to connect with her. The driver, the man with the envelope, another woman, and myself all spoke to her as if she was making perfect sense to us. She was beaming. Even when we couldn’t understand her, her smile was infectious, and to see that we were giving her joy was enough. Often in our interpersonal interactions we are so concerned with saying something meaningful – we’re trying to make a point or convey an idea – but social interaction doesn’t have to be that way. Sometimes all it takes is the simple recognition of somebody else as a person. Sometimes all it takes is to listen and respond in a nonjudgmental way, even when it’s impossible to understand. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you say, what matters is that you’re saying something. Ignoring someone, shaming them, removing them from society; nothing is more torturous.
Sometimes we forget that people with mental illnesses are still people. The woman I met was very friendly. She wanted to hold conversations, and she asked a lot of questions about my life. She was also a caring mother, she had bought gifts for her sons and wanted to mail them on time. We rarely think to use words like “friendly” when we speak of mentally ill people – too often we define them by their disorder rather than the good traits they still possess. We shouldn’t let it suffice to call someone a schizophrenic when there are other wonderful words to use to describe them. We shouldn’t let Alzheimer’s be someone’s only defining characteristic.
I also learned a lesson about speaking in public. Rarely will anything bad come of it. Some of us are so concerned with the things we are about to say that we rarely speak at all. We tell ourselves that we will look stupid, or that others will judge us, and so we refrain from talking. The woman on the bus seemed blissfully unaware of this; she spoke freely and without fear. Most people considered it a welcome change. They spoke back in an empathetic manner, listening and treating her like the human being she was.
Many socially anxious people have grown up in stressful social situations, and may not be used to interactions like this. They were bullied, judged for their actions, and laughed at for being different. Often, this is where much of the anxiety surrounding social interaction comes from. We assume if we were to speak out loud on the bus like the woman did today, people would laugh and jeer, poking fun and giving us dirty looks. Perhaps some people would have done that had they seen the spectacle today, but nobody did. The world doesn’t always mirror the hellish landscape of the elementary school playground – it is full of tolerant people who want to make a difference. And by being respectful of others and listening to them sincerely and compassionately, you can make a difference, too.
Remember the following, from Dale Carnegie’s list of Six Ways to Make People Like You:
Become genuinely interested in other people.
Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.
People love connection. They love when people listen to them and appreciate what they say. Sometimes all it takes to make someone feel happy and human is to listen to them and treat them with respect and empathy. We are constantly presented with new opportunities to better others’ lives, and if we approach those opportunities with courage and humility, we can truly make a difference.