The Presence of Strangers

This past weekend I did an acting showcase at TVI, which was so fun, rewarding, challenging…I got to fight with my ego for three solid days, which is part of acting.  Sitting, watching other actors work, being glad they’re good, but also comparing yourself, fantasizing about your future, feeling not good enough…I have to tell you, I felt so grateful for Buddhism and yoga I could have cried.  It’s so different to watch those thoughts and be like, wow, I’m really not liking my feelings right now, obviously, so I’m having these thoughts…only I don’t like them either and wouldn’t it be terrible if I BELIEVED THEM!  This weekend, I didn’t believe my thoughts.  I heard them, I listened, but I knew them as statements about how hard it is for me (or anyone) to put myself out in the world, to show not only whether I possess talent, but also who I am–my take on the world, the way I see and feel, my body and what it can openly express.

I loved this weekend not only because everyone in the showcase was good, and not only because I learned and got to do what I love, and not only because I could hear my own craziness with some real equanimity, but because the weekend started with a human connection that had nothing to do with acting.

I was taking a cab from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and my driver did this rare thing–he turned off the meter and stopped charging me after he made a wrong turn.  Then I didn’t pay with the credit card right away, so the machine clicked off.  He talked me into letting him drive me back to Manhattan–and without having been paid, went to the bank to do some business to give me time to get ready to go back.  In other words, he trusted me.

My friend Sam, watching me hurry, said, “How did you get a NEW YORK CABBIE to let you not pay while he waited?”

I said, “I just figured that I’m trustworthy and he could see that, so he trusted well.”

Sam was like, “Nice.”

So I get back in the cab, and I started talking to the driver.  This is from traveling all over the world–I’m really curious about people, so I often ask cab drivers their names, and where they’re from, and how they got to this country and what they think of it.  Or else we talk about sports.  I’m kind of happy to talk about whatever.  But in this case, the driver told me that he had been educated in France, then went back to his native Cameroon, where he taught farmers to use technology so they didn’t have to be swallowed up by the corporate farming coming in, and so he was an activist and was threatened with jail and expelled from his country.  Then, here in the US, he was a victim of racial profiling by the NYPD, falsely accused of assault, and spent four years in court trying to prove his innocence (he mostly did).  I asked how he felt about driving the cab when his education qualified him for better work, and he told me he couldn’t work for corporations, and he had learned not to hope, but just to take each day, and enjoy what he could.

I’m not a fan of injustice.  I have also been an activist, and have been a recipient of some pretty heavy rounds of homophobia and sexism, so though he may not have known it–he talked; I listened–we are very alike.  When the cab stopped at the yoga center, I decided to just tell him how I felt.  So I said, “Thank you for telling me your story.  I want you to know that I have fought for justice in the world, and part of the reason I do this is because stories like yours make my heart hurt.”  And then, to my surprise (and certainly his), I started to cry.  I contained it as well as I could, but the look on his face wasn’t only surprise.  His face grew suddenly younger, and that hope he had foresworn made a brief appearance.  This moment happened…when I was as connected to him as I have ever been to anyone in my life.  Then it passed, and he asked me to take a picture of his name and cab number in case there was ever a way to help him, which I did.  And I got out, went into the yoga center, cried again, and then did yoga.

We so often think of listening as the gift, but truly, to tell someone what has hurt us, what we have struggled against, how we feel in the world–that is also a trust.  I love when people trust me.  I love when I can live up to it.  And here’s the thing–he gave me that gift.  I went into my struggles with acting with the knowledge of my own humanity, and my connection to the suffering of other people, and how important it is that we find a way to reach each other.  It gave the usual struggles, the ego, the insecurity, the desire for affirmation, a context.  I felt, ironically, worthy of my place on this earth.

The gift was trust; and I was the recipient.

The gift was witnessing; and I was the giver.

Thus do we heal the world.  In such small moments, that mean everything.