I never know when proximity to another human being will trigger an overwhelming empathy. It started early in my childhood, always hit without warning, and was entirely out of my control. With a child's limited vocabulary, I always thought of the rush of emotion as "feeling sorry" for that person. I have tried to find a word that better describes this experience. The definitions of sympathy, empathy, or pity all presume an active circumstance that elicits emotions in one person for the situation or condition of another. It is, as best as I can describe, an overwhelming feeling of tenderness and love toward another human being simply because they are human.
Luckily, I do not often experience these blasts of emotion toward strangers anymore, but the other night I had the luck of a double whammy. The first instance happened when I ordered a sandwich at the local deli. There was a line forming and only two people working. A young man, a teenager, took my order. He carefully listened to everything I said. He worked at a steady pace and was focused entirely on the job at hand. I always ask for "a lot of oregano" as the last ingredient. Usually I have to ask for more, or I will say, "You can't put too much on it". People are in a hurry. They honestly do not care what the perfect amount of oregano is for my personal sandwich. Many people might even think I should take the oregano and jump in a lake with it, if you know what I mean. Not that I am demanding or rude about it - they ask you what you want at each step. This earnest young man put in the exactly right amount of oregano. He carefully and methodically shook oregano evenly over the length of the sandwich. I could not have done it better myself. It was such an honest act, not because he cared about me, but he was doing his job to the best of his ability. He was giving good measure simply because it was asked of him.
Sure enough, a big wave of "feeling sorry" for the young man welled up from some place in my spirit. I thought of his mother. She would know better than anyone how carefully and honestly he deals with everything in his young life. At that moment, I hoped life would always be exceedingly kind to him... and his mother.
So, I ate the sandwich with the perfect amount of oregano, thoroughly enjoying it, and thought the transformative love of mothers for their sons should have made a noticeable difference in this evil world by now, but even that mighty force falls short. Americans own an estimated 65 million handguns, which are made for one purpose only: to shoot another human being.
After I finished eating, I had a quick purchase to make. There were many customers in the convenience store and I was stalled in line behind a young woman. I was face-to-face with the large and very bad tattoo on her bare back. It was a reproduction of a famous photograph of a child as a fairy, or a sprite, in the middle of a flower. It was without a doubt the worst tattoo I have ever seen. Instead of an angelic face of a child, it was an old man's face. Even worse, the hideous baby was holding an illegible sign, or the worst rendering of a beer can ever inked. Because the woman was wearing a skimpy shirt, she was either proud of it, or she had long ago resigned herself to the fact that she was scarred forever with an extremely ugly and inept tattoo.
As I waited, trying not to stare at her back, another wave of compassion flooded over me. There had to be a reason why this woman chose that particular artwork to decorate her body. Maybe it was supposed to be her own baby's face. Clearly the sign, or the beer can, had a significance but it was entirely lost due to the inept and illegible rendering. If it was supposed to be a joke, no one could possibly decipher it. Whatever her original intention, it had clearly missed the mark, in all ways. But what if she was honestly satisfied with it? I should not be "feeling sorry" for her but should just keep my entirely subjective opinion to myself. But I did feel sorry for her. Bless her heart, I thought with a lump in my throat.
The woman with the terrible tattoo invoked a sorrow for all of our imperfections, our failures, all the times we settle for so much less than we deserve. We treat one another badly but sometimes it is the best we can do. The reality of our intentions sometimes translates into something not beautiful, but ugly, inept, terrible - utter failure comes to mind - and then we are stuck with it for the rest of our lives.
Sometimes I have to remind myself what my son said once in extreme exasperation: "Mom! Not everything is a big spiritual deal!"
I beg to sometimes differ, Son.