Warning: naughty language ahead!
Holy shit, this woman is crazy, I thought to myself. But also amazing.
This middle aged, white woman in front of me, bouncing up and down, clapping her hands together, was certainly unlike any other patron at the New York Historical Society that night.
“I’m such a weirdo, I know! But I’m so excited!” she squealed. I had the impression that she got this excited often. But I didn’t mind—I was feeling giddy, too. Her energy was so infectious.
“No way, I love it!” I said. She gave me a high five.
Actually, she gave me many within the short span of time that I was assisting her at coat check. I witnessed her giving high fives to just about anyone she could get her hands on—to one man because his last name rhymed with hers, to a spirited man who called her “fabulous,” and to a woman whom she had met at this museum a week prior. “It’s synchronicity!” she declared, before inexplicably pulling out a copy of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and giving it to this person to keep.
I can’t even recall now why this lady was jumping in delight, but it didn’t matter. She wouldn’t have needed a reason.
“What is your name?” She asked me, as soon as she settled down.
“Stephen. What’s yours?”
“Nice to meet you, Stephen. I’m Jennifer.” We shook hands. I took her vest from her, along with three large shopping bags she wanted to check.
“Thank you for your joyful smile!” she said to me. I smiled wider, giggling. I couldn’t believe she was real. She was like a living, breathing doll. Mattel’s newest product: Love & Light Barbie.
“No, thank you for supporting the economy!” I quipped, referencing her many shopping bags.
“Oh no, these have my laundry in them! I’m going over to my mom’s after this. Never assume! It’s just what my spiritual teacher in India told me: see beyond surface appearances!”
“Yes! I love that. It’s so true,” I responded.
We chatted a bit more, then said our goodbyes. I had a feeling our paths would cross again some day. You know, synchronicity and all. Then I took her coat and shopping bags, and stored them neatly in the walk-in closet.
I was thinking about my encounter with Jennifer long after she left. What was it her Indian guru had told her? See beyond surface appearances. It’s not an original thought, not an Aha Moment; there are a million comparable clichés being Instagrammed by life coaches all over the interweb. But it was a great reminder for me, nonetheless, and it somehow felt important that I heard it in this way. The spontaneity felt pre-destined.
See beyond surface appearances.
Such a simple concept, yet true on so many levels. In any given circumstance there is so much more than meets the eye. Even with Jennifer, upon first meeting I assumed that because she was attractive, had these shopping bags, and was frequenting the New York Historical Society, that she was this big spending Real Housewives-esque Upper East Side diva. Not true! (Actually, it could still be true. I don’t really know her full story even now. But that’s not the point!)
Our immediate reaction to encountering new people is to create story-lines about them before they’ve even opened their mouths. It doesn’t take a whole lot of conscious thought either. We can just instinctively “know” somebody within seconds. Every article of clothing expresses a subliminal (or sometimes quite outright) message, whether it’s a Herschel backpack, Adidas kicks, Chanel sunglasses, or a rare vintage dress from some thrift store in Brooklyn you’ve probably never heard of.
Sure, we can gather a few pieces of information, but in actuality, we don’t know them at all. We’re just seeing a superficial version that they’re trying to convey. We see their symbols, but not their soul. We see their exterior, an outer layer, but that’s not an extension of their ego, and speaks little of their true character.
Inayat Khan, who founded Universal Sufism, says in the book Soul Whence and Whither, “By cover upon cover; the soul is covered by a thousand veils.” We could argue about the meaning of soul, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s define it as the real self: a person’s thoughts, feelings, desires, vulnerabilities, and passions. The true heart of a person is covered by so many layers, including, most clearly, their skin and bones. The human body isn’t the human at all but is merely the means of experiencing outward sensation. Yet we make judgments all day long about people based on the way their body looks.
The next layer, or veil, is clothing. And then automobiles. And even social media accounts. And on and on we go, further keeping our real selves from being seen. Many of us identify ourselves and categorize others based on the these false symbols, these distractions that eclipses a person’s true self.
But it’s all good. As Dr. MacGrane told our class over and over again: “What you don’t internalize can’t hurt you.” We can have fun with it. It’s all pretend. As RuPaul said, “We’re born naked and the rest is drag.” It isn’t a bad thing, it just means we need to do a bit of digging—or listening, rather—to find out the truth behind the matrix. To separate the soul from the symbol.
See beyond surface appearances.
I was at my meditation center the other day for a five week series called “Joy In Everyday Life.” The week before, we were instructed to pay careful attention to our mood and emotion, and notice the times we are most joyful and the times we’re down. What specifically was happening when the shift occurred? Then we gathered together in small groups and we shared.
One of the girls in my group was pretty. She had perfect Zooey Deschanel bangs, a chic little outfit, presumably Zara, and perfect golden accent pieces. I don’t know her name, but let’s call her Emily. Before she even spoke, I was creating a narrative around her based on her physical appearance. (Can you spot a trend with the way my mind works?) Nothing negative, but forming assumptions nonetheless. Then Emily started speaking about how this past week she’s been meditating for 10 or 15 minutes a day, as was suggested by the teacher, and felt more relaxed than she had in a while.
“It was good,” she said. “I was moving slower, trying to be mindful. I was happy. But I didn’t get everything done that I wanted to. I was less productive. So it’s hard to say if I could be that way always, and still reach my goals. Because I would not have have gotten where I am today if I weren’t motivated by anxiety and perfectionism.”
Half of me totally empathized with what she was saying. I do worry about my own ambitions being cut short due to finding fulfillment in a deeper realm. And while that’s a good thing for my wellness, it’s not so good for my ego.
The other half of me wasn’t feeling so empathetic toward Emily. I was rolling my eyes a bit, thinking, “Look at her. She’s perfect. She’s got a great, high paying job, she’s articulate, confident, good looking. Things can’t be that bad.” But then I stopped, became aware of my inner voice, tuned it out, and really listened. And then I had a realization: “Well, no. Things can be that bad. She’s a person. She’s a human being. It doesn’t matter where you are in life, suffering is suffering.”
See beyond surface appearances.
Emily went on to say some other things that really touched me. Her vulnerability allowed us a peek at her heart, so that we could relate and connect on a pure level. It kind of blew my mind to realize that despite her surface appearance, she has this whole internal world that nobody knows about. I think that’s the entire concept of compassion in a nutshell. That in fact, every single person walking the Earth has this internal world filled with so much density that we don’t know about.
How many times have we met people who seem rude right off the bat, and we dislike them immediately, because we think that that’s who they are? We should try to notice these snap judgments and let them go, because we’ve all been that person before: stressed, tired, running late, anxious about work, anxious about a significant other. Is it an excuse for poor behavior? No. But compassion doesn’t care. We are responsible for our own feelings and reactions and judgments of others. By recognizing and forgiving the ego of others, we can extend that courtesy to ourselves too. And vice versa.
Walking in the subway station at Union Square, I often just see my fellow humans as obstacles, or competition for scarce resources (aka seats) on a crowded train. I fail to recognize that they are, in fact, fully formed creatures made in the likeness of God, brilliant light beings disguised as separate egos.
There’s a beautiful passage that talks about this, that my dear friend and college roommate Kaitlin once shared with me. It’s the definition of a made up word (aren’t all words made up?) from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:
Sonder: noun. The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
Tell me you didn’t just read that and feel things.
See beyond surface appearances.
And by the way, we could also take this to a metaphysical level, too. I think Jennifer, my Love & Light Barbie, would appreciate that. For if you see beyond surface appearances, you will find that everything which appears solid is just energy in motion. And if you see further, you will find that everything which appears separate is actually intrinsically interconnected. That means people, too.
As my friend John Lennon once sang: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”
Author: Stephen Wickhem
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Image: Hillary Boles/Flickr