A few years ago, a young union organizer stopped by my office to talk with me about an upcoming campaign of activism directed at CUNY administration. As we spoke, I felt increasingly impatient. I didn’t need to be ‘organized’; my participation in the activities planned by the union was a foregone conclusion; this young man was preaching to the converted. I tried to indicate as much so that his energies could be more usefully utilized elsewhere, but he was undeterred; it was quite clear he–a novice activist–was working with a script, and was going to stick to it to no matter what. Finally, struggling to keep my irritable disposition under control, I brought the meeting to a close, and ushered him out. Later, still put off, I commented to a friend of mine on how the young organizer needed to ‘get his act together.’
A couple of weeks later, walking through campus, I saw the same young man sitting by himself, eating a sandwich for lunch. My initial reaction on seeing him had been to hope that he would not catch sight of me and launch into his organizing spiel. But as I looked at him, quietly working his way through his solitary meal, an entirely different emotion ran through me, one that replaced the irritation I had come to associate with him.
I felt, most of all, a curious emotion that I can only describe as a hybrid of sympathy, pity, and affection; it might be the feeling that courses through us when we see a small child playing by itself. Strangely enough, as I looked at that young man, I felt protective of him. I felt too, regret at yet another failure of kindness, even if not overtly expressed; I had not been accommodating and understanding enough of his enthusiasm for his work, of his naiveté and sincerity. I felt ashamed I had ever thought so harshly of him, spoken so unkindly about him. I had been impatient and dismissive; he had merely been doing his job even if one could quibble with his tactical allocation of effort.
This change in my perception of this young man had been brought on, I think, by witnessing him at a moment of acute vulnerability. He was all alone, engaging in an act that all humans engage in, eating a meal. Somehow the simple business of quietly eating a sandwich in solitude had reminded me of his humanity. When I had encountered him in my office, he had been a pesky irritant, diverting me from my work, subjecting me to an argument the contours of which I knew too well. Here, all that was gone; now, there was only a young man nourishing himself. All alone. Somehow, at that moment, he became just another person trying–imperfectly, at the best of times–to find his way in this world, all the while not free of his most basic human wants. Here, by himself, he was taking care of them.
At that moment, that little glimpse of that young man was all that was needed for me to see him in an entirely new light. My old feelings could resurface were I to encounter him in a similar context, but perhaps then, hopefully, they would be tempered by the knowledge of the sensations that I had just experienced.