By Melissa Kirk
So last Thursday night I was on the bus coming home from work. Normally I take BART – the subway - for this leg of the trip, but there was some delay on BART, so I took the 72 bus instead. It’s a LOOONNNGGG bus ride. For some reason, I was just sitting there without a lot of jibber-jabber in my head. That’s not normally the case for me, but this night, I was just sitting, my mind relatively quiet, observing, open to the people around me.
The first thing I noticed was the noise. This was one noisy crosstown bus. I think if I had been more my normal self – more in my head and more judgmental – I would have been really pained by the noise. There was a group of high-school-age kids in the back talking back to each other as kids will, a woman talking rather loudly into her cell phone, and two other women having a loud conversation. As it was, I let the noise just wash over me, and it did feel like some sort of sonic wave.
The next thing I noticed was peoples’ energy, bouncing around inside that steel box. The lady on the phone was getting mad because another passenger was looking at her as she talked. Two young girls were eating sweets (one had a huge, rainbow-colored lollipop, the kind I didn’t think they made anymore) and talking quietly. The two conversating women were swapping stories of their painful childhoods – and they did sound painful. One said the last time she had seen her father was when he had come running to her house, t-shirt covered in blood, looking for shelter. The punk-looking guy next to me was staring out the window but his fingers never stopped moving.
Eventually, as I watched the restlessness on that bus, I realized what I was seeing. It was like I opened up to what was really going on. And what was really going on were that everyone’s egos were desperately seeking comfort, bouncing around inside that bus like ball bearings in a pinball machine.
The lady on the phone was seeking acknowledgment from her friend on the phone and also making a big show of getting up and moving so the guy watching her couldn’t see her. The comfort of self-righteousness is one of the nicest feelings there is. The girls eating sweets were enthralled with the comfort of the food. The two women sharing horror stories were wanting their pain to be seen – really seen – by the other, and also wanting it to be OK that they didn’t feel responsibility to treat other people respectfully because, as one of them said “Nobody ever said sorry to me.” The loud kids in the back of the bus were seeking comfort in numbers, seeking physical and psychic safety by taking up space. The guy next to me was, like me, en route to something else that would give him some kind of comfort. A lover, maybe, or a concert or a drug deal. I was going home to be safe in my cave, where I was in control and nobody could touch me unless I wanted them to. We were all just bare-naked egos in that bus that night, crying like little babies wanting to be fed and held.
I know that this is true of most people most of the time. I joke sometimes that you can take the person out of the schoolyard, but you can’t take the schoolyard out of the person. All of us at some time or another, and most of us most of the time, are in the schoolyard, at least in our psyches. We hit and kick when we think the bully is coming after us, or we ingratiate ourselves in exchange for being left alone; we seek solace in something outside ourselves – food, love, sex, booze, TV, self-righteousness, religion – because we aren’t getting our needs met elsewhere and don’t know how to ask; we seek cameraderie with others so that we can feel safe and not alone, the way zebras do on the plain, and we’ll do whatever we can to be accepted by our crowd, to not get kicked out and left for the playyground bullies.
And there’s nothing wrong with all that – it’s the way humans are. But that day on the bus I saw it clearly than I usually do. I’m usually as blind and ego-driven as everyone else, and I was on that night, too, but for some reason, I saw something differently, some break in the curtain between what we tell ourselves is real, and what is actually real. It was like when the light falls in a certain way, illuminating a familiar object differently than normal, and you see that object in a new way, for just a second. I felt a strong compassion for everyone on that bus, for the little kids inside us all, who just want to be loved, acknowledged, appreciated, and touched.
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