“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive: and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”Maya Angelou
One day you will meet a stranger. I don’t know when or where, though for many of us I believe now is as likely a time as any. That stranger will hold your life in their hands. Not only will they hold your life, they will hold the lives of those closest and dearest to you.
That stranger’s identity is bound to one question: when disaster occurs – who are you?
Let me digress for a moment, though I have barely gotten started.
I work in a grocery store. It is not a glamorous job. I have given up on making any “30 Under 30” lists. But I take that job very seriously, because it offers me countless fractions-of-a-second to shape others’ lives.
For the past week, the store has been stripped of shelf-stable food and dry goods within hours of opening. It is not a sight for which our first-world economy has prepared us.
I have helped many individuals over the past few days. Nonetheless, in all of these interactions I have talked with precisely two people.
The first person does not look at me. Their eyes are on the shelves in front of them, looking at all the empty spots. They may have found half to a quarter of the items on their shopping list, but their attention is on the missing items; their attention is consumed in a feedback loop with their experience of the unknown. They may not hear me when I ask if I can help, and they are very likely more frustrated by, than appreciative of, the offer. Other shoppers avoid their eyes and give them a wide radius.
The second person looks at me just a bit longer than I have come to expect from a customer. They smile, and they mean it; they are completely present in this moment. They may only have half to a quarter of the items on their shopping list, but they say they will experiment with what they have. They are more focused on the shared experience of a community of humans facing the unknown. Whether or not they need help, they thank me and others as they move through the store.
Most of us know ourselves well enough to get through a typical day. We know how it feels to live in our heads, our familiar routines and choices.
But many of us have never had to face an exceptional day. These are the days which, by definition, we do not know how to get through. There is no template, no previous experience to rely on to guide our decisions or reactions.
Exceptional days are not anomalies. They are a normal part of the experience of being a human. They are a slight twist on the familiar question we debate each day with the Universe: “What can I make out of this?”
Related: See Trickster’s Bouquet for thoughts on creativity as resilience.
Exceptional days occur infrequently, and because of this we may be unfamiliar with the version of ourselves who emerges in response. It is very likely that this person will be a stranger to our normal mode of thought – but that person holds our future. And fortunately we can give that stranger gifts towards our survival. Like caches of water in a desert, we can leave them compassion, humor, and courage. We can bequeath them the strength that comes from saying, disaster is part of the question of how to be human.
You see, you get to pick your stranger from my two grocery store varieties. You may find yourself in the hands of someone who sees empty shelves and no help in sight. Or you may find yourself in the hands of someone who has come to understand that empty shelves hold room for quite a lot of kindness, empathy, and the clear-sighted intelligence which says, today is a good day for discovery.
Today, pick your stranger. Pick the tools you want them to use in the midst of an exceptional day. On the day you face your stranger, you will know you are in good hands.