“See me.” Lessons from a toddler.

seemeEven though Dietrich is not the most verbally adept 3 year old, he often surprises me with his correct usage of pronouns and plurals.  But obviously he is 3, so some of his phrases, though logical, are not actually grammatically correct. One such phrase: “See me.”

That phrase has really stuck in my head lately. The correct phrase would be: “Look at me.” But how often do we look with our eyes, and fail to actually see. And it started me thinking. How do we see people, truly see them. Not just what they look like, the clothes they wear, the things they do, but really see the person.

Even in my closest relationships I tend to look at people through the lense of self-interest. For example, if John does something because he is stressed, my first mental response is to think about how his stress affects my day, instead of first recognizing his struggle, his needs, his sorrow, his passions, etc. When my children misbehave, I immediately think about how their actions reflect on my parenting abilities and what people around me must be thinking about me, instead of noticing why they are upset or confused or looking for attention, etc. I’m not saying I think we should all unselfishly try to meet everyone’s needs while ignoring our own. But I do think it would be good to get out of our own head enough to recognize the humanity in the person next to us.

If it is so hard to see those that we live near, those we share lives, history, and love with, is it actually impossible to “see” strangers for who they are? What would it look like to go about my day and actually see the people around me?

A few weeks ago I got off work and had time to kill before the bus came, so as I often do, I started walking down the street towards the metro, planning on catching the bus at a later stop. I had almost reached the end of my walk, when a man stumbled across the street in front of me and disappeared into the drive of a hotel. It was like a blip in the normal smooth traffic of people and cars. No one else seemed to notice even though this man walked as if he were falling.

As I passed the hotel drive, I glanced into the covered space, wondering if I would be able to see him still. He was there, but not walking. Instead he was lying on his back with his head on the curb, feet stuck out into the driveway. I kept walking, but then I stopped. This wasn’t normal. I wasn’t sure what was wrong, if he was just drunk, or if there was something else going on, but I couldn’t just leave him there. I turned around and entered the driveway and walked up to the man on the ground.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said. “Are you ok?” He groaned and sat up, but there was blood on his head. I repeated my question and the man assured me that he was fine, even though his confusion and his body language told me otherwise. “You don’t look ok,” I said. “Can I get you some help?” He said he had fallen down, and then asked me if he looked like he had hurt himself. I told him about the blood on his head and that I thought it would be best if we called an ambulance to make sure he was ok. Thankfully at that point a man who had been standing a little ways away in the designated smoking area came over and asked if he could go in and ask the hotel to call for help. I agreed and I stayed with the gentleman. The hotel called for help, the man who had stepped in stayed and waited with me. This man had actually seen the older gentleman enter the drive and stumble into one of the brick pillars, which is why his head was bleeding and how he ended up on the ground. While we talked, the injured man sat cross-legged on the ground between us and kept wiping blood away from his sweaty forehead. He repeated himself often, and didn’t seem terribly coherent, so I wasn’t sure what to say to him. Later I wondered if it had been really rude to talk about him as if he weren’t there.

It didn’t take long before an ambulance pulled up and the paramedics entered the drive. The first one knelt down and addressed the injured man by name, asking him what had happened. The man said: “I fell down.” And the paramedic’s answer made it clear that this had happened before. The witness gave his report and we were allowed to leave. I walked away, but felt so uneasy. I actually turned back around after getting a few yards down the road, returned to the ambulance where they had already loaded up the man in the back and mentioned to one of the paramedics that I had seen this man before he hit his head and his behavior was not normal. “Yes,” he replied. “We pick him up all the time. My partner just picked him up yesterday actually.” There was nothing more I could do, but as I walked away I felt sad. Here is a man who is picked up by ambulance so often that the paramedics know him by name. Yet, nothing is changed for him. I “helped” him today by stopping and making sure he got help, but I didn’t truly change anything for him. It was all so incredibly sad.

I came home, my brain in a muddle, wondering if there was anything to do that could actually help someone like that. I talked it over with John, who has passionate views about the social systems in our country and who immediately began lamenting the fact that our systems are failing, and this is just one of many symptoms. And I agree. Work does need to be done to change big picture things. John’s good at thinking big picture. But his response didn’t totally satisfy me either. It is sometimes easy to help one person and satisfy our conscience enough that we can ignore the big issues that we should be contributing effort to solve. But if we completely focus on the big picture, we lose sight of what makes up the big picture — individual people. And that is just as wrong. Even though it felt like I was the only one who actually saw that man when he walked past me that day, I know I didn’t truly see him. I know nothing about him other than what I experienced during those few minutes with him. I don’t even remember his name. I didn’t touch him. I didn’t even stay truly present with him while I was there. But maybe I saw him just a little more clearly than I sometimes do. Our lives touched for just an instance and the disparity between them caught me off guard.

I really don’t know how to “see” people. But I think it requires listening and presence. Those are two gifts I have the ability to give to anyone. I may not have the means to change their circumstances, but I can offer them these two things. I’m not good at it. I often respond in selfishness instead of in the kindness of listening and presence. But I hope to practice this more, to continue to train myself to see.

“See me,” Dietrich says. Next time he says this to me, I will get down on my knees, look him in the eyes and say “Yes, I do see you.”

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