We have no idea

A couple of decades ago, at a party, I was introduced to a tall thin man with an infectious grin framed by a dark goatee. His hair curled around his collar. His eyes were the sort of blue it’s hard to forget, although apparently I had.

“We’ve already met,” he said.

“I’m awfully sorry,” I said, blushing furiously and shuffling my feet. “I don’t remember.” And really, I thought I would remember this young man. He was quite lovely to look at, with those eyes and that grin. “Could you remind me?”

He looked a bit sheepish and took a swig from the bottle of beer in his hand, then launched into a long tale involving a day a good decade previous, on which he had found himself in something of an emotional cul-de-sac. In fact, he said, he had been in considerable distress. Apparently we had been waiting for a bus at the same stop and I struck up a conversation with him (he said he suspected I sensed his distress, but I suspect it had something to do with those eyes). Before he knew it, he was spilling out his story and we decided whatever business we had at the other end of the bus ride could wait. He told me we went for coffee and that I listened to him and talked with him for the better part of four hours, at the end of which, well, he decided not to do what he’d been thinking about.

When he stopped speaking, I admit I was absolutely discombobulated and baffled. He was obviously telling the truth — I would have been where he said, when he said, and he described what I was wearing, and certain things I’d shared with him about my own life at the time that were all accurate. And he didn’t seem like a stalker.

But how, I asked, can that be? How could I spend half a day with someone, discussing important issues, and have no recollection of the incident whatsoever? I might be rather bad with names and faces, but I am awfully good at remembering moments of emotional connection — it’s part of the writer’s bag ‘o tricks I’m afraid. The entire thing was most unsettling.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that’s the way things work,” the man said.

“How so?” I asked.

“We really don’t have any idea how we affect other people. We don’t know who we help or who we harm…at least not all the time…not unless we’re supposed to.”

“What do you mean ‘supposed to’?”

“Unless it’s to our spiritual benefit.” He rolled the beer bottle between his palms. “Otherwise, there’s just some plan, some web that’s too big, too complicated, too intricate for us to comprehend. We only get to see what we need to see. The rest of the time we just try and do the next right thing.” He made a face. “I don’t think I’m explaining this very well.”

But I thought he was.

For a moment I had a flash of understanding, about how I stumble rather blindly through the world, trying to doing the least amount of harm I can, filled with insecurities and regrets and often buffeted with feelings of uselessness and futility. But at the same time I saw how certain people came into my life for brief moments that turned out to be turning points. In many cases I was quite sure these people would be unaware of the great impression they, or some work or action of theirs, made on me, but nevertheless, there it was.

“It’s a strange feeling,” I said. “I feel odd. Humbled, and well, tearful and joyful all at the same time.”

“Yeah, it’s like that when we get a glimpse,” he said. “Anyway, when I saw you, I wanted to tell you. I figured if we were put together again then maybe there was a reason you needed to know.”

He grinned, gave me a hug and turned into the crowd. I caught sight of him several times during the evening, but never saw him after that.

He was right about the needing to know, I think. When we met, again, at that party, it was a particularly low time for me, and I had been feeling as though my life was rather meaningless for too long. What he said introduced to me the concept that perhaps whether I was contributing enough to the world or not wasn’t up to me to decide; that as long as I strived to do, as he said, the next right thing, any judging of my performance is best left to someone who has the whole picture, and…since the only thing I know for certain about God is that I’m not it…that someone isn’t me. There’s a great relief in that, a sense that the universe, no matter how complex and mysterious, is benevolent, and tipped towards good.

Is this truly the way the universe works? I have no idea. But I have learned, through the fellowship to which I belong (you know, the one that meets in church basements mostly, the one comprised of folks who don’t want to get drunk and/or high any more), that I’m not in charge of the universe, I’m not the director of the play, I’m not even the bus driver. I have learned that suffering is all around me, that it is my responsibility to alleviate it wherever and whenever I can, and that the best place is to start with the person right there in front of me.

Almost everything is none of my business, and I have no idea what impact I will have on the world around me. The only thing I can try for is a compassionate and willing heart, and so, once again, I find myself contemplating Thomas Merton’s prayer:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Amen to that.


  1. red-handed on June 4, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Just get yourself lost in the woods sometime — the effect is about the same.

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