Once I found a wallet on a train platform in Grand Central Station. Strangely, I was the only one in the crowd who noticed it. People rushed along, boarding train cars, conductors stood by open doors. Nobody saw it. How could this be? It was as if everyone was in a trance except me. I had no choice but to pick it up. I settled in my seat, wondering what to do next.
Up until that point I was savoring one of the great pleasures of New York or any walking city or town: public solitude. It was a pretty day and I walked back to the train station after lunch with friends. I loved the feeling of flowing along in a river of humanity, watching all manner of states of being pass by, rich and poor, joy and sorrow. But I also loved the feeling of doing this safely encased in my own little bubble of thought and observation.
Seeing the wallet lying on that busy platform unnoticed was shocking enough to burst my bubble. It woke me up to the strange reality that we are all doing the same thing–all of us floating along in our own bubbles, lost in our own stories, the center of our own tiny universes. It was a small shock, not an attack or a declaration of war, yet it awakened compassion in me and reminded me that I was also part of a shared world.
As an exercise, allow yourself to remember that part of the larger stream of life–that the pains you are experiencing are not yours alone to be hidden as if they are shameful, but part of “the” pain, our collective human pain–the pain of loss or rejection or not getting what you want. This experience reminds us that life isn’t asking us to be superheroes, swooping in to perform great deeds. It is asking us to join in, to be available, to bear witness to what is happening and respond as kindly and wisely as we can in any given moment.
Looking through the lost wallet, I checked the driver’s license and found it belonged to a young man, just 20 years old. He was carrying a bank card that belonged to his mother, based on the name, and a fair amount of cash. I felt a stab sorrow for the young man, but them my heart lifted because I knew that this would have a happy ending.
What to do. Should I walk through the car, looking for the young man myself? After a little consideration, I decided to take another leap into the stream of shared humanity. I let the conductor in on the situation. I showed him the driver’s license and gave him the wallet. This poor kid is probably looking very worried and scared, I told him. And we can turn this around. We can give him evidence of goodness of humanity. The conductor brightened and smiled.
Was I unwise to let go of that wallet and trust the conductor? It didn’t cross my mind that I should not. The exchange took place in the hearing of other passengers and no one called me crazy. He came back with a big smile on his face. He told me that found the kid sitting one car back and gave his wallet back.
“He was soooooo happy,” said the conductor, beaming. “All the people around him knew he lost it, and all of them were happy, too. “
This was one of those marvelous moments–and I’ve had several on trains–when people go from being alone to together, from solitude to community. The next time the conductor passed by collecting tickets he was humming. Everyone around seemed lifted up, looking at each other, released from their isolation.
The word enthusiasm comes from the Greek root entheos, “having the god within.” There are moments when we feel we are flowing along with life, part of a greater wholeness, a greater story. The conductor, the young man, his supporters, me—a whole group of us were sharing something wonderful that didn’t even need to be rendered in words.
Do you ever wonder what your purpose is? On Saturday, I saw that our purpose can change moment by moment. We are here to bear witness and to allow forces to pass through us–to return wallets, bring water to people who need it, to offer to be one more pair of hands on the bucket brigade in this burning world.
It is a small deed, playing a part in returning a dropped wallet, but for a moment I glimpsed what was really being accomplished, as effortless as breathing. How expansive and bright it felt to be part of the giving back of the wallet—as if I was joining the flow of life. How constricted and dark it would have felt to hold on to it, as if I was freezing life, binding myself, casting myself into darkness.
Almost at my stop, I walked back one car and introduced myself to Robert (that was the young man’s name). He thanked me. We smiled.
“You made his day,” said the lady sitting next to him.
“He made mine,” I said. Just before I stepped off the car, I turned around. Robert smiled and waved–as did the lady next to him, and a few others who had witnessed the unfolding story of the wallet also smiled and waved. It sounds as if my commute on MetroNorth turned into an episode Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. But this is what was also revealed: those who got on at later stops, who missed the wallet story, who sitting in their isolated bubbles.
Alone and together, in solitude and community, in one stream or another–this is the way our life goes. A wise man once told me to boil things down to seeing what is needed in any given moment. I’ve learned that what is needed is always first to remember that we belong here, and that we are meant to flow.
“May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.”