Agent of Change

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.”

–Rilke 

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.

    http://documentaryarts.blogspot.com/2011/09/encounter-with-simone-weil.html

    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.
    Barbara

    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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