by Parth Savla
I was standing in line at the local coffee shop on Monday at 5:15 a.m., fueling up to analyze spreadsheets for a meeting later that morning. Cold, stressed, and focused on what I had on my plate -- as is symptomatic of many people working in Manhattan -- I simply wanted to get my caffeine fix and bury myself in the data that lay before me.
The woman ahead of me was placing a very big order: "Can I have a dozen bagels, a dozen donuts, oh, and half a dozen brownies, too. Along with four medium coffees."
My antsy feeling turned into irritation. I immediately assumed she was gearing up for an office gathering or party for the holidays. However, I started to realize that this woman didn't quite fit the profile of an office manager, and it seemed like an odd time of day to order for a soiree. In spite of my restlessness, my curiosity was piqued.
"Thank you," she said, "The order is for the nurses at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, because they've been doing a great job taking care of my Dad." She removed her gloves and hat and shook off the melted snow.
What made her say that? I believe people share with strangers because they seek human connection, something that is not always easy to find. I stopped staring at my watch and fiddling with my book bag strap. Hearing about this woman's father made spreadsheets and deadlines insignificant. I asked how her father was doing.
"He's in a coma," she said, "He fell into a coma yesterday. And my sister and I have been taking shifts being there with him and mediating with the nurses and doctors." Her make-up ineffectually hid the lines of a sleepless night, and her shoulders were tight as she held back the tears.
Her experience hit close to home. My dad was in the emergency room only a month earlier. I understood how frightening it can be to have a loved one suddenly fall unconscious.
My watch strap caught on my book bag buckle, and I moved away from the woman to remove it. I soon realized, though, that the movement wasn't about removing the strap but about not knowing what to say. She had shared so vulnerably.
I felt compelled to connect but was holding back. Rather than feeling the pain of my father's illness, it was easier to distract myself with the caught watch strap. Her pain mirrored mine back to me, which was both uncomfortable and relieving.
Sometimes, we can see ourselves more clearly through someone else's experience. I thought to myself, "What if it had been my dad that slipped into a coma?"
The Jain principle of anekantavad is about respecting the variety of perspectives in the world, but it has its roots in the interconnectedness of all beings. Being aware of how other people approach their joy and sorrow, the same kind that we personally go through in our own way, allows us to be more empathic and mindful of the things we do and the people with whom we interact.
Could I let go of my insularity and looming deadlines for a moment to connect with another human being in pain? Would it be possible to be vulnerable enough to share how much I related to her experience?
It was now clear to me that I had an opportunity to connect empathically with this person, but I didn't know how to do it without getting too "personal." I chose to let go of my concerns. I walked up to the counter again and told the cashier I wanted to pay for her order.
The woman said, "Oh, you don't have to... It's okay."
I reassured her that I had it, that this is something she didn't need to worry about. I told her to concentrate on praying and sending out good thoughts for her dad's heath to improve. Her eyes swelled up with tears. She thanked me and finally let out her bottled-up emotions. I was grateful that I had put aside my fears and could create space for her to express herself.
Coming back to respect for all views and the interconnectedness that comes from acknowledging that openly is definitely a cultivated practice. I haven't always achieved this. I'll be the first to admit that I have my blinders on as a default. Every time that I choose otherwise, though, it enables me to experience others and myself in deeper ways.
"I haven't cried like this in a while," she said. We hugged, both filled with emotion.
We then talked about her dad's condition over our coffees. Just a few hours ago, her father started moving his fingers again. The split-second decision to reach out to this fellow human being helped me realize just how connected we all really are.
After reassuring her that things would be okay, she told me that her name. I told her mine was "Anonymous." Getting that I just wanted to connect as one human being to another, she smiled and released the last of her pent-up emotions. Soon after, we hugged and said good bye.
My heart felt full and connected. Somehow, the tension I had felt when I first walked into the coffee shop that morning had dissipated. The significance of meeting a deadline didn't seem as all-consuming anymore.
All this happened within twenty minutes. It was sparked by letting go of whatever hesitation I had about connecting with someone to share the human experience. I had to get over my pain and feelings of awkwardness to be there for another person. This was anekantavad in action. Seeing the world through another person's eyes created a moment of real community.
Parth Savla is an entrepreneur and strategist. He founded and runs TruVizon Designs, a web services company. Before that, he was a business analyst at major jewelry company in New York City. He is currently the manager of JAINA. He enjoys life coaching, spending time with friends, baking, and singing karaoke.