Lamar was my Lyft driver on a sunny afternoon at the end of my workday. My request popped up in his cue of requested rides as he began his shift that Wednesday afternoon. Seven minutes later, he pulled up to the curb, and I climbed into the backseat and gave a friendly hello as I put my seat belt on and prayed he was a good driver. Lyft and Uber is a side job for most of the drivers I have met. And a perfect one if you like flexibility, or if human observation and awkward interactions are your things. Or opportunities for intriguing conversation. I guess it’s all about perspective.
We were mid-route and all of those first moments of polite exchanges were out of the way. Yes, my day has been pretty good. (Mediocre really, but I think good is what he wants to hear, so that’s what I tell him.) Yes, the sunshine is nice to see. And now we have settled into the quiet part of the ride with the white noise of NPR playing at low volume in the background. The window is partially down, and the fresh air and warmer temperatures are welcomed after a long winter of cold and gray.
And then Lamar interrupts the silence. “So how do you keep from becoming numb in your line of work? I mean, with all the hard stuff you see and have to deal with.”
He is referring to the field of social work, where I still moonlight during the week. And I have an inkling suspicion he is asking for his own heart. Since Lamar has asked this million dollar question that has caught me off guard, I close my email and lay my phone in my lap.
That’s the challenge of life, isn’t it? To walk through it and not become numb. To not lose heart. To age with grace and not become embittered. Not just in social work where you try to connect people with limited resources and where you are always buried in more work then you can manage. Not just in the medical field where you encounter unexpected illness and chronic pain and sometimes accompany a physician to deliver bad news. Not only inside the prison system where you hear stories that will break your heart and encounter people who are not ready to change and often revisit the system multiple times if they survive their addiction long enough.
But in everyday life too. I wondered what Lamar’s daily life had been like. What hurt and disappointments had he encountered along the way? Who let him down or didn’t keep their word or possibly betrayed him?
I will be learning to answer this question he has asked for the rest of my life, I think to myself. But one of the ways we keep our heart from becoming numb is by learning to see ourselves in the stories of others. There are universal needs that we all have, regardless of race or political persuasion or religious affiliation. Regardless of gender or economic status or where we are located on the map.
We are all human at the core. Resilient and fragile, depending on the day. We are all prone to hunger, fatigue, fear, loneliness or questioning our own worth or belonging in this world.
We become numb to protect ourselves from what we think we cannot handle.
And sometimes we become numb because we forget. We forget to look for ourselves in the pain of others. I may not be the one receiving bad news, but I know what it feels like to fear it. I know what it feels like to not be able to stop the hand of time from stealing someone I wanted to hold onto forever. I know the sting of death.
I may not need resources that are in short supply, but I know what it feels like to be worried about the future and to feel overwhelmed in the moment.
I may not be returning to prison for the third time because of addiction and self-destruction, but I know what it feels like to fail and feel like I can’t get anything right and to have to live with regret.
Don’t we all?
Protect your own heart by learning to see and listen to others with compassion. Look for yourself in their stories. You may find that it will do your heart a world of good.