Agent of Change

On Saturday, after lunch at a Thai restaurant in Chelsea with two friends and new Parabola comrades, I found a wallet on a train platform in Grand Central Station.   Lunch had been festive and the conversation deep, just right for Bright Week or Renewal Week, the week after Eastern Orthodox Easter, according to one friend, who was still jet-lagged from an Easter trip to St. Petersburg.   I walked back to Grand Central after lunch, indulging in one of the great pleasures of t New York— public solitude.  The train was to be more of the same, feasting on the passing scene yet being alone, resting and reflecting. And now this—for some reason I was the only one on the crowded platform who noticed the wallet.  Settled in my seat, 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 I guessed belonged to his mother, and a fair amount of cash.   Suddenly, I realized how bereft he must be feeling just then– I’ve had my wallet stolen several times. Bleak scenes—and scenes of kindness I had received when I was in that situation—flashed before my eyes.  My heart lifted because I knew I was about to lift that young man out of a very bleak place.

I showed the driver’s license and the wallet to the conductor.  I told him I thought the kid was sitting a car or two back.  He is probably looking very bereft and scared, I told him.  And we can turn that around. Awhile later, the conductor came back with a big smile on his face.   He found the kid sitting one car back and gave his wallet back.  “He was soooooo happy,” said the conductor, beaming. “  So were all the people around him who knew all about it.”  This was one of those marvelous moments in New York—and I’ve had several on trains—when people go from being alone to together, from solitude to community.  The next time the conductor came by he was humming.  Both of us, the young man, and the people around us were lifted up out of our isolation and infused with a special kind of enthusiasm, as if we had been invited by the universe to take part in a mission.

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—when we become agents of life forces rather than forcing things on our own behalf.  I loved functioning this way—helping the universe.   At lunch and walking back to Grand Central, I had been thinking about Parabola’s upcoming issue, “Alone and Together.”   And now the universe had given me an example of what it is like to be part of a greater wholeness—the conductor, the young man, his supporters, and I—all of us part of a seamless whole, an exchange that involved the intricate turning of many wheels, of karma.

Do you ever wonder what your purpose and your passion is?  On Saturday, I saw that our purpose can change  moment by moment—that it is a matter of noticing and allowing rather than a great act of will.  When I was a little girl, I loved pretending to be a secret agent.  On Saturday, the universe gave me a chance to be a secret agent of larger forces.  It handed me a wallet and all I had to do was hand it on.   A small deed, 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 (and I believe Dante portrays Satan that way, frozen in ice, unable to move).

I decided that remaining anonymous was too isolated, too full of self conscious modesty—I wanted more of this adventure.   Almost at my stop, I walked back one car and introduced myself to Robert (that was the young man’s name).   As he thanked me, I noticed there was a look that took years of conditioning off his face.  I could see the child in him.  “You made his day,” said the lady sitting next to him. He made mine.   Just before I stepped off the car, I turned around.  Robert smiled and waved–and the lady next to him and a few others who had witnessed the unfolding story of the wallet smiled and waved.   But it was as if the whole car lit up, taking in all those who were oblivious, isolated, dreaming.  We really are all alone in this—wishing and striving to find our purpose–and together.   A wise man once told me to just try to see what is needed in any given moment—that this can be a light to guide you on your way.

Parabola’s “Alone and Together” is coming soon!

13 thoughts on “Agent of Change

  1. This same feeling -the change from isolated to togetherness happened on a larger scale during the Ice Storm of ’98 in NNY….offerings of warmth, help and camaraderie were overwhelming. Listening to the radio, many people called in offering wood, fuel, food, comfort to anyone who might needed them – without, generally, the expectations of being paid. Those who were able to help, experienced the good feelings of helping, as you did. Many who experienced this expanse of time without electricity and telephone, felt like the folks sitting close to the young fellow who lost his wallet – a part of the experience and glad that there was someone like you who found his wallet and returned it…I felt very good that there were so many who were willing to help during the emergency. And the devil in this story? Those people who decided to price-gouge (hiking prices of food, water, gas and generators) to make as much money as possible from the disaster were the worst.

    1. Hi Gina,

      Great to hear from you in this space. Disasters large and small do bring this feeling of togetherness–this spontaneous outpouring of help, of goodness. And it does feel good to emerge from isolation and help, doesn’t it? It doesn’t always work out this way–but sometimes there are gods lurking in the devil. Having your wallet stolen or witnessing price gouging–or being stingy yourself–can give rise to compassion. Loss, darkness, and major ice storms can hide gifts of connection.

      I remember following the news about NNY in The New York Times, being proud to be from such a place. Still am! Big smile, Tracy

      1. Don’t frown on the thief during a crisis. They are loving enough to know they can serve the world best by being more respectful to property than you.

        “Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it.” — G. K. Chesterton

      2. And the thief can be an agent of compassion–being robbed taught me how it feels to be robbed, and that causing pain to others really isn’t cool.

  2. Tracy, it is obvious that the question of compassion and what it means to serve is very important to you.

    As you know I’m involved with this effort of introducing Simone Weil to the world. Julia Haslett created a documentary on Simone because of Julia’s questions on compassion and why suffering exists.

    Even though the documentary is being shown now in theaters and schools, I did buy a DVD from Julia. If you know of friends and those associated with Parabola who would be interested in watching and discussing the video, I would bring it. It would have to be in a venue like an unadvertised house party with a screen large enough to show it in respect for Julia’s current efforts .

    If you like the idea of a friendly gathering for mutual meaningful experience and discussion and know of the right venue, let me know and we could plan it.

  3. Doesn’t it feel wonderful to do something that good for a fellow human being?
    Always remember, Mitake Oyasin ( We are all related ). Bless you.

  4. Tracy,
    your good deed wasn’t only that moment of being aware, then effortlessly stepping into the river of things, that day with the wallet. It was then writing about all of it so beautifully! The light from that subway car touches me today, at home here on an island near Seattle, in my jammies at the computer, alone. And I am smiling too. Sympathetic joy all around.

    Yes, and I love your name for one of the great pleasures in NYC: public solitude. I don’t live there but I’ve tasted that pleasure in Manhattan many times. I’ve also seen and felt many magical moments there, when our public solitudes meet and connect, and a shared kindness glows.

    Thanks Tracy for spreading that marvelous, human light.

    1. Thank you, Barbara. We really are all connected–I can feel a connection to you there, on your island, in your jammies.

  5. Tracy, this a beautiful essay that illustrates the truth that a compassionate act arises from awareness and then attracts even more awareness for a wonderfully complete human experience.

  6. Tracy, what a great story! Thank you for sharing it with us. One of those great moments of generosity that can create a ripple effect that can continue forever. I might be so bold as to call it a “God moment.” Shalom.

    1. Thanks, Scott. I think it was a God moment–one of those great little moments when we get to be vessels for God’s love and compassion. I’m sure you have had quite a few. Peace, Tracy

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