strangers on a train

I often think of a story that my brother Scott shared with me years ago. I believe he had read it in a favorite book of his. In the time that has passed since he told me, the details have blurred a bit, but the gist of the story remains vivid in my mind.

As he recounted the tale, he described a scene on a train. In my mind I imagine a commuter train, crowded with men and women wearing smooth dark business suits, some with briefcases in their laps, snoozing or with their noses buried in newspapers, passing time on their way home after a long day’s work.

One businessman notices a fellow whose three little children are raising hell in the train car, racing around causing a ruckus and bothering the other passengers. The father doesn’t seem to notice—or doesn’t seem to care—that his children are acting out and being so disruptive. He’s just sitting and staring out the window at the world whizzing by. On behalf of the other passengers the businessman approaches the father and says something like, “excuse me sir, would you mind getting your kids under control, they’re pestering the other passengers.” The father appears in a daze and doesn’t respond. “I said excuse me, can you please restrain your kids, they—,” and the father slowly looks up at him with a drawn face, his eyes sunken and dark, “oh—I’m so sorry. You see, the kids just lost their mother and we’ve just come from the funeral. They haven't had much sleep and they’re not really themselves. I apologize,” and he went on to gather his kids quietly hushing them to calm down. The train rolls on in silence.

I try to remember this story because at times, more than I’d like, I’m apt to jump to conclusions about another person’s actions or motives. Often I hear friends or strangers passing judgment on someone whose reality they could never truly know. At times I fail, thinking somehow that I know why someone cut me off while driving, gave me a scowl or acted rudely. I remember moments when, in my darkest days of grief during Calvin’s first few years of life, when passing strangers on the street or in the grocery store would tell me that I should smile.

I can never really know what the person standing next to me in an airport, at a crosswalk or at a crowded farmer's market feels, has experienced, or believes. How could I? Best thing I can do, though, is to not make assumptions, keep an open mind, give folks the benefit of the doubt. I suppose it's pretty simple—it's the very same thing I’d want from others.

photo by Michael Kolster

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