Friday, September 14, 2012

The Woman in the Elevator

When I was a little girl, my mom often told me the story of a neighbor who she didn't connect with until it was almost too late- and the life lesson it taught her.

In the first apartment we moved to in California, my mom was raising two very small children, she knew no one, and she was desperate to make friends.  Often, she would enter the elevator and find that she was not alone.  The woman down the hall from her would also be in the elevator with her young son, and at first, this made my mom really excited.

The first few times they were in the elevator together my mom smiled and tried to make small talk about the kids- but it soon became clear that this woman was not in the mood to talk.  She was cold, aloof, and well- from my mom's perspective- RUDE.

My mom's imagination started to run wild with explanations as to why this woman would be so rude to her.  Was this woman racist?  Was she judging my mom's parenting style?  Did she simply not like my mom for some reason?  Finally, after it had been eating away at her for weeks, the next time she saw the woman in the elevator she decided she would ask her what her problem was.

She didn't get the chance...that day, the woman broke down in the elevator.  She had stage four cancer, and she had no one to care for her young son at her funeral- which was eminent. Wow.

My mom realized this woman's quiet, focused resolve had nothing to do with her.  So, she offered to watch the woman's son during her funeral, and sure enough a few months later, she had the opportunity to do just that when the woman lost her life to cancer.

I was reminded of this story a few days ago when I read this post from Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project blog. A quote by Flannery O’Connor, from a letter she wrote in 1959, really stuck out to me: “From 15 to 18 is an age at which one is very sensitive to the sins of others, as I know from recollections of myself. At that age you don’t look for what is hidden. It is a sign of maturity not to be scandalized and to try to find explanations in charity.”

Do you try to find explanations in charity?   When reaching out in ways that may be uncomfortable, like meeting new neighbors or new friends it can be much easier to close ourselves off to other people, assuming that if they are not polite or cordial enough we have been intentionally dissed.  But, I have found that often times, reaching out to others can require continuous work.  Once you get to know someone, it almost always becomes clear that their intent is often very different than our first interpretations. 

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