I can remember sitting on a bench watching this tiny, old Asian woman looking nervously at a group of teenage boys out of the corner of her eye. They were posturing and talking loudly, attempting to impress a group of nearby girls with how thuggish they were.
As I observed this lady warily survey the strutting group of wannabe hoodlums, a strange thought sprang into my head- what if she were secretly a vigilante crusader tracking down her next group of victims? Was she isolating their weaknesses and plotting their demise. It made me laugh and gave me a fun new game to play- the absurd back story.
It is a great game for those trips to the beach, the mall, or anywhere else that people gather and act in bizarre ways- which pretty much makes it universally applicable. Nothing can make the doldrums of the medical waiting room take on new life like a well-developed and ridiculously absurd back story.
Today, I had a bit of inspiration. I was out for a run and getting a little one on one time with the guy upstairs. I was asking for help in dealing with my anger, which tends to worsen in direct correlation with an increase in the volume of idiots who refuse to yield space on the sidewalk, or ignore traffic laws, or who find dog owner sanitation requirements to be beneath them.
I had just successfully pulled off a triple salchow to avoid a group of five suited yutzes who managed to create a moving wall across the entirety of the fifteen foot width of the running path, when a thought came to me- what are they hiding?
I knew what I was hiding. I wore my typical street expression- intense, unsmiling, perhaps a little angry. When running in the city, I always wear the mask. Why? Because if you look like a victim, you will be a victim. It is the rule of the street and the jungle. But beneath my faux MMA persona, I was struggling with the guilt of the impact of my divorce on my kids, fears about my inability to be the man they need me to be, anxiety about what the future holds, and doubts about my worth as a person.
So what were all of these people hiding behind their chosen masks? As I glided by faces, I began to see them differently. The old lady biking alone- missing her best friend and husband of 30 years who should have eaten better. The middle-aged businessman in the $1000 suit- frowning as he thought about the way his wife had flirted with his best friend at the dinner party. The young pregnant girl- hoping that this time the man would stick around. The skinny black boy- trying to look tough, but knowing that he would be chased through the projects on the way back to his rundown shithole and scared that this time he might not be fast enough.
I saw them for what they were. Not literally, of course. I didn’t know any of them and most of my back stories were based on cliches or stereotypes. But I knew a truth about them, because I was part of them. I realized that we are all the same, regardless of our color, or background, or gender, or religion. We are all dealing with the same voices of doubt and fear and guilt.
It didn’t matter whether my stories were accurate. What mattered was that they were true and that they made me less uncertain, less afraid, less guilty.
And an interesting change occurred. I found myself smiling at strangers. I moved off into the street when the sidewalk was blocked, and didn’t think about how good it would feel to run over someone. I even mouthed ‘hi’ to several others who met my eye. And those faces changed. I was met with smiles, and waves, and humanity.
Well, not uniformly. There was the militant-looking thug with the teardrop tattoo who fired a finger pistol at me. And perhaps under that armor of anger he just needs a hug, but I’m not quite ready to go there just yet.