“Love your neighbor as yourself” – Laura Pittenger, Ruah Storytellers 2020
Shame is the best way to time travel. When flooded with shame, I can remember, with painful particularity, every moment of shame in my life to date, as though I am swimming through one giant swamp of regret. Today I travel six years into the past.
I am 24 years old. I work mornings at a hotel restaurant in Manhattan, an hour away from my apartment in Queens. I’m used to standing on the train.
There are never seats on the train during the morning rush. Unlucky passengers must stand, holding cold metal poles decorated throughout the car. Often five or six hands cling to a single pole, artfully arranged by the heights of the individual standers. It is a cooperative existence. New Yorkers understand this.
All except this guy.
This guy’s body is coiled around my pole like a snake. This guy stares at his shoes, lost in a world narrated by his headphones. I have no pole, thanks to this guy. Instead, I surf the train, my knees bent in balance, my knuckles growing white as I clutch my purse. This guy does not see me shooting invisible daggers into his skull. I hate this guy. I could kill this guy. He must know he is ruining my day on purpose. How can he live with himself?
Why is this guy standing as though he might kiss my pole, which he holds like a lover in the crease of his elbow? I have seen many odd sights on the subway, but never anything quite like this guy.
This guy moves to change the music track on his phone with an odd motion, using his knuckles to scroll. Knuckles which do not connect to fingers. This guy has no fingers. Oh. Oh.
My face, hot with anger, now burns hot. This guy must hold the pole that way. This guy cannot grasp a pole with fingers he does not possess. This guy has no choice.
As the train cruises into the next station, this guy hops out the sliding doors, and I am left alone in the hoards of strangers, alone with my shame.
I do not deserve to grab his pole. So I don’t. I surf.
As the train slides into my station, I travel seven years further into the past.
I am sixteen, wearing my bright red grocery store polo shirt, mechanically scanning boxes of cereal, my monotonous reverie interrupted by the shrieks of a young boy, invisible to me behind the counter. His mother wants to pay and get out of my line. I cannot concentrate on my task. I make a snippy comment. I am cranky, just like this child, because he is misbehaving, and his mother doesn’t care. She tells me he can’t help screaming. He has autism. I squeak an apology. Mine is not the first she has ever heard. She is unimpressed. But she does not call my manager. She has enough to worry about.
“Be kind, for everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” I don’t know who said this first. Maybe it was a saint, maybe somebody’s grandmother. Maybe both.
It would be easy to see these two people – the man without fingers, the boy with autism – as convenient metaphors for our secret wounds, invisible and unknown to others. But some people are not fighting any battles. The man without fingers has found a way to hold on. The boy with autism will be heard and reassured. His mother hears him, even if she is the only one in the world who speaks his language. They know what they need. What they don’t need is my judgment. It is my soul, not theirs, which must change.
Graham Greene writes in The Power and the Glory: “When you visualized a man or a woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity . . . that was a quality God’s image carried with it . . . when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”
I’d like to imagine a world of generosity, free from my snap judgments of the people around me. Free of my quick anger, my frustration and selfishness, my impulse to shame others, which so often shames me. A world abundant in kindness. It starts in the grocery store, on the train. In traffic. At home, with our roommates, siblings, spouses, kids. It starts here, with us.
Laura Pittenger is a writer and director creating theater in New York City. Her plays are published at YouthPLAYS and Smith & Kraus, and her work has been produced in the U.K. and across the country. Learn more at her website: www.laurapittenger.com, or follow her on social media at @lapittenger.