Life is precious. Not because it is unchangeable, like a diamond, but because it is vulnerable, like a little bird. To love life means to love its vulnerability, asking for care, attention, guidance, and support. Life and death are connected by vulnerability. The newborn child and the dying elder both remind us of the preciousness of our lives. Let’s not forget the preciousness and vulnerability of life during the times we are powerful, successful, and popular. Henri Nowen
I am prone to road rage. Driving is incredibly aggressive in the congested area where we live, and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t get honked at for not making a left turn (into oncoming traffic?) fast enough for the person behind me. Sometimes I feel like getting out of my car and going back to ask the person behind me what they are asking me to do. Of course, I don’t. I am also, though, prone to getting almost equally irritated when someone is driving very slowly in front of me. A few weeks ago, I was driving with my daughter and said under my breath, “What is this person doing?” to which she answered, “Well, you never know, maybe they’re having a bad day—you don’t know what’s going on with them right now, so don’t beep.” I thanked her for the reminder, and was happy to hear something I’ve at least tried to model some of the time, reflected back.
You know that “Baby on Board” sign in the yellow triangle that parents often have in their minivans or SUV’s? I’ve always been a bit baffled by that sign. Are people supposed to allow you to drive more carefully or beep at you less if you have one of those? What about just “vulnerable human” on board? We’re fond of quoting, “Be kind; everyone’s fighting a hard battle” online, but what about in real life? What if we could cue in to that vulnerability, not only of babies, but of all human beings, more of the time?
The truth is, much of the time we have little idea of what’s going on in the inner lives of those we do know, let alone those we don’t. Sometimes I remind myself that at one point, I was newly widowed driving around with a toddler. There was nothing that would’ve clued other drivers in to my situation, and I know that now, as I’m driving around there are also people in their cars who may have just lost a loved one, a job, or be returning from a test at the hospital. When I picture them at their most vulnerable, I hold back on beeping. I wave them in. I let them cross. (at least sometimes!) Mr. Rogers apparently used to carry around a little piece of paper in his wallet with a quote something like this, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you know their story.” Maybe patience is love, and just imagining someone’s story can make them more lovable, even in the face of slow driving or tween tantrums.
When I lived in the city and took the subway every day, I had a little exercise that helped me to remember, (without making eye contact of course) that everyone on the train with me was a vulnerable human being just like me: I pictured them buying a pair of shoes. When everyone was literally all bundled up in winter and had their protective stances, arms crossed—imagining a large man with piercings all over trying on shoes seemed to bring him down to a level that I could relate to. It didn’t matter what race, size, or style of dress; we all need a pair of shoes to walk in and at some point had to try them on and see if they fit. In a similar way, when I walked by the homeless people I saw every morning near my office, I remembered that at one time, someone gave birth to that man or woman and held them, a baby, crying in her arms.
A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with another mother and mentioned that I’d been losing my patience more than usual with my daughter. She shared with me a similar tool to the ones I used in the city to keep from hardening my heart. I thought it was brilliant. “When I’m losing my patience, I have one image that I bring to mind of each of my kids…” she told me, “at their most vulnerable.” For her daughter, she chose an image/memory of her standing on the side of the road half dressed after a horrible bout of motion sickness required a change of clothes. It helps her to remember how little her children still are. Oftentimes we see our children so much and they hold up their end of the conversation so well that we simply forget that they’ve only been alive for seven or eight years. My friend’s visualization exercise reminds her again.
To remember our shared vulnerability, whether it’s with your child, on the train, driving, or even online, allows us to extend the grace to others that we wish for ourselves. Perhaps, more than a reactive tool, it is the best and first answer to our own lack of patience or self-preoccupation. “The love of our neighbor is the only door out of the dungeon of self, where we mope and mow, striking sparks, and rubbing phosphorescences out of the walls, and blowing our own breath in our own nostrils, instead of issuing to the fair sunlight of God, the sweet winds of the universe,” wrote George MacDonald. We are all humans on board…and as Anne Lamott often quotes Ram Dass, “We’re all just walking each other home.” It helps to remember that.