The Woman On the Bench

Last week, as I was walking back to my office in downtown Minneapolis, I crossed the street and saw a woman on her phone, sitting alone on a bus bench. As I got closer, I noticed that she put her free hand to her forehead, lowered her head a bit, and began to cry. Perhaps she had just heard bad news, perhaps she was giving the bad news, or perhaps she simply was having a bad day. Whatever the case, as I crossed the street and moved closer toward her I could feel my concern for her rise. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, the street was busy, and yet no one else seemed to notice that this woman was crying. As I reached the corner I walked past her on my right and then turned to walk just behind the bench, proceeded about 15 feet and then paused and pretended to be on my phone so I could see her without drawing too much attention to the situation. In close to a minute she was off her phone and I approached the bench, sat next to her, and asked her if she was okay and if there was anything I could do. She was surprised but could tell that I sincerely did want to know. Mind you I do not think I’m particularly special in this regard – every human heart longs to make sure that others are well. We are wired to love, we are wired to care, we are mammals and thus mend and befriend is what we do. But in this particular society, in this particular historic moment, in this particular region of the country, and in the busy downtown of a city, stopping to ask a stranger if they are okay, I mean if they are really okay, and if there is anything they need is an anomaly.

 

She very quickly recovered from her surprise, said “thank you” and proceeded to let me know that it was just some bad news about some family issues. I asked if she wanted to talk about it, she said “no, but thanks”, and I, rather awkwardly, replied with “no problem” and took my leave.

 

I share this for two reasons. The first is that this moment haunted me for hours afterward. As I walked away I looked back and wondered “but who will take care of her?” To clarify, she was not undone by her tears and seemed to have the capacity to deal with whatever the issue was, and so I am not suggesting that she needed specific care per se, but rather just care. And so I wondered throughout the day “who was caring for her?”, who was holding her hand, listening to her, letting her know that she is not alone in her pain. By virtue of being human we all have to deal with our individual trials and tribulations, but we need not ever feel as if we have to face them so utterly alone as we do in this society. In so many places around the world, the very idea of suffering alone is anathema. Connected, supportive community frameworks and modalities of social organization abound on this planet. In the U.S., however, the reality of suffering alone is part and parcel to our rugged individualism. A price is paid for our big houses, big yards, big fences, wide streets, property lines, and the like. We cut ourselves off from each other and then struggle in isolation in ways that can be utterly debilitating. The prevailing structure of this society is not conducive to deeply and skillfully answering the question of who will take care of her, of me, of us all and as a result some of our most basic human needs (companionship, nurturing and care) go unmet. And so my first reason to share this is to suggest that the price we pay for many of the structures of our society is a high and dangerous one. Dehumanizing systems of oppression not only lead to an imbalance of material safety, but they lead to an imbalance of emotional and ethical safety as well. And so on the simplest level I was struggling with wondering who would care for this woman in whatever way would best serve her well-being. But, I believe it haunted me so much because it tapped into the deeper question of who will care for all of us, for this entire society, in the face of our individual and collective pain?

 

This leads me to my second reason for sharing this story which is to suggest that any society that cannot answer the question, “who will take care of the person who is suffering” stands little chance of achieving the hoped for goals of social justice and equity work. While the old and superficial lenses of rigid identity politics would have us believe that dismantling systems of oppression is the sole goal of social justice and equity work, I believe that it is only half of the issue (and perhaps the easier half). The other half is imagining and then creating a society that can actually live as a just and equitable one. And it’s in that living that we need to be able to wisely and consistently answer the question of who will love and care for, who will listen to the troubles of, who will support the struggles of those that suffer? I’m not talking about more government or more institutions or services to carry this out. I’m talking about how I as an everyday citizen will take up this charge and live by the core values I hold and the work I have built my life around. How will the basic needs of my fellows be held as a spiritual and moral commitment of mine? And, if I cannot answer these questions, or at least be in the midst of answering them, how can I possibly ask participants in my trainings to do this? How can any of us expect it from others if we cannot do it ourselves?

 

And so I asked her what I could do. She said “nothing”. And then I walked away, feeling a little inefficacious and wondering how she was going to be cared for as she faced whatever it is she is tasked with in this life. I have no idea who that woman was and I doubt I will ever see her again, but I know one thing with absolute certainty – I must be the answer to the questions I’ve posed here. And though I imagine it will take the entirety of my days, as a result of my incredibly brief experience with this woman I am just that much more committed to simply caring for others (no exceptions) and living the deeper ethos of social justice work in everyday ways. What future is worth living if it’s not caring and just? I could have done better with this woman. I could have extended an even warmer hand and opened my heart a little more. Next time, I will.

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