Sometimes, reminders of what’s really important in life present themselves when we’re not expecting them. Whatever the trigger, when our normal patterns of hamster-like busyness are interrupted, we become (even if for only a short while) a bit more present; more focused on observing instead of doing. And when we’re more present, we are more likely to see age-old truths that have defined the human experience since our earliest days.
Recently, I had made an appointment at a local RV shop to have a trailer hitch put on my SUV. After the work was done, I picked up my vehicle later that day and drove it home only to realize that there was now a strange vibration that literally shook the whole vehicle every time I stepped on the gas. Slightly annoyed, I called the shop back, told the owner what was going on and made an appointment to bring it back the next morning.
When I got there the next day, Jim, the owner of the shop, apologized for not catching the vibration beforehand and said he would have me fixed and on my way in about 10 minutes. He then proceeded to pull out his mechanic’s creeper, socket set and a few miscellaneous parts and went to work right there on the gravel driveway in front of his garage. Since it was a sunny morning outside, I just leaned against the side of the garage, watched him work and made small talk. Sure enough, he was done in almost no time and the vibration was gone. I was good to go.
But while I was watching Jim, who seemed like we was up there in years, I noticed that there wasn’t another soul to be seen anywhere on the property. I wondered if he worked alone. It seemed like it would be awfully lonely, so I casually asked him, “Jim, do you work alone or do you have anyone helping you here?” He paused, forced a smile and said, “Well, that’s an interesting question.”
For the next 10 minutes, I listened attentively as Jim shared with me that, indeed, he had two brothers in their early 20s who had been working for him when I dropped off the car the day before. He had known the two since they were young and seemed like he cared about them quite a bit. With a tear forming in one eye, he then shared that the older brother had taken a phone call shortly after I dropped my car off and abruptly had to leave. His younger brother, he said, was in some sort of trouble. Later in the day, Jim learned that the younger brother had committed suicide.
“Now why would he do that?” Jim wondered out loud to me. “I’m 75 years old and have been working for myself for over 45 years. We all get blue from time to time, but I’ve never thought of killing myself.” He went on to share how he had tried to be available and help, even offering to buy the young man a beer after work one day and just be a sounding board. Occasionally I would ask a question. Had the young man been acting depressed? Did he think drugs were involved? But more than anything, I just listened and let Jim talk. I didn’t need to be anywhere else at that moment, so it cost me nothing to just be present and listen.
Without even noticing, 10 minutes quickly passed and we were both pulled back to the present moment by the sound of another customer pulling into the parking lot in a pickup truck. A tear still in his eye, Jim said, “Well anyway, you asked if I worked alone. That’s probably more than you wanted to know and probably why I missed the vibration in the first place.” But his smile had softened. His pain and concern for the older brother certainly weren’t gone, but I had a sense that his burden was just a little bit lighter because someone – a stranger in this case – had just been there to listen to what was going on in his world.
I shook his hand and thanked him for fixing the vibration so quickly. As I got back into my SUV, I rolled down the window and asked, “Hey Jim, how about if I take you out for a beer later this week? Sounds like you could use it.” If a smile could tell a story, his toothy grin would have been a best seller. The truth is that life can be tough and, no matter how much we glorify individual toughness, our species didn’t evolve to go through hard times alone. We are social creatures by nature and every time we make ourselves available to be present for and lift up someone else – even a relative stranger – we lift up ourselves as well. In fact, even if it’s just a little, we lift up the entire human race.