Like most people, I spend about 99% of my life wrapped up in my own little world of problems, unaware of what life is like for others outside my immediate bubble in anything beyond an academic sense. I live my life, I struggle with my problems, and I let others go about their business, if not with little bits of kindness, then at least without any interference. But 1% of the time, I experience a little satori, a glimpse of what life is like for others, and it gives me a squirt of compassion. Like yesterday.
Yesterday, Sarah and I drove to Olathe to meet up with my brother and his wife for dinner and to retrieve the laptop I’d left at his house by mistake on Sunday. This drive entailed driving against the flow of traffic as people got off work and fled the city.
The first realization was how many people must spend a good portion of their day driving in this hellish traffic to get home. I’ve worked from home or lived in such small towns for so long that I’ve never really had anything that constitutes a commute. Seeing people who had one made me feel a little bit of sympathy for them, and more likely to let someone squeeze in front of me, to forgive the little mistakes. If I spent an hour a day in traffic like that, I would go mad. That they were handling it, day in and day out, was a clear sign that they were all better people than me.
We met up at my brother’s place of work; a little arcade in an upscale mall. I haven’t been inside a large Midwestern mall in many years, and I had forgotten how much Malls and Las Vegas remind me of each other. Both are these weird artificial indoor experiences with no natural light, bad carpet, and a weirdly commercial vibe to everything. What impressed me most about the mall was how few things there were that one would actually NEED to survive. Almost everything the mall sold, shop after shop, was needless consumer goods–stuff that might be fun, but stuff you’d only buy if you had a lot more excess income than I’ve had in a long time. I tried to remember if there was ever a time when we would just go to the mall to buy random crap, but I couldn’t think of one. Maybe, but not in recent memory.
I started to develop this mental model of what the internal life of someone who has a commute for a job in the city and shops frequently in the mall must be like. They must be used to a higher level of comfort than me, sure. But are they happy? Do they find any solace in their RC helicopters and skin care supplies purchased from pimply teens at kiosks? When we go to the mall, what are we really looking for? It sure as hell isn’t human contact. As we walked around, people almost universally make it a point to ignore the other shoppers. They’re just ghosts in your world, minor inconveniences between you and that next Hot Topic button or whatever.
As I pondered these things, trying to navigate the mall to find my brother, I felt for a moment as if I were living a past life simultaneously with my own. I was George, 34, father of two, who worked in a middle management job in Kansas City and liked to blow off steam after a long day in the office by purchasing new shirts at the upscale boutiques at the mall. He has a secret passion for the girl who works at the pretzel store.
The feeling passed as quickly as it came. Then we ate at a a chain restaurant Cheddar’s and I had spagsana — lasagna made with spaghetti noodles. It was okay.
Then we drove home. We watched some TV. And I went to bed.