By Laura Moore
I realized I had forgotten it as soon as I double checked my purse prior to picking up the pizza, and that realization led to a flurry of searching on behalf of my husband and myself: in the diaper bag, the stroller, the carseat, under the seats in my car, anywhere we could possibly think to look.
But the minute I realized it wasn't in my purse, deep down, I knew I left it there, at the store; I could picture exactly where I set it down, and--because I felt guilty for being the jerk who came in ten minutes before close--I knew I left it in that spot because I was mindlessly hurrying out of the store so the employees could log out and enjoy the night.
Despite knowing no one would be there when I returned, I rushed back to the store just in case, hoping that maybe someone was waiting for a ride, or got a last minute phone call, or had some other reason to remain well beyond closing time. When I pulled into to the empty parking lot though, I knew it was hopeless. Nevertheless, I gazed through the window anyway--just to see if it was there--and sure enough, propped up on the counter exactly where I left it, I saw my wallet, sticking out like a butterfly on asphalt.
I wanted to vomit.
Why didn't anyone see it and lock it in the register? I wondered.
Then I proceeded to scare myself: Someone is going to break in. My wallet is so OBVIOUSLY there. The window doesn't seem that thick. The lights are so bright.
My abandoned billfold looked terribly tempting, bulging with the thickness of my life, hovering beneath spot lights, ripe with a vulnerable identity waiting to be stolen. Frantic to retrieve it, I knocked on every window. I left a message for the manager. Heck, I even called the emergency door line listed on a sticker at the top of the door. Nothing I did, however, produced results, and so I sat there, defeated.
Before giving up entirely though, I called the police.
The non-emergency line operator told me to wait in the parking lot and she would dispatch an officer. Relieved and hopeful, I sat there, staring through my windshield into the store window, focused painfully on what I left behind. I sat there praying that the police officer would have the solution. I sat there inventing a thousand scenarios where authorities would arrive with a skeleton key, or a manager or some other magical means of opening the door and handing me back the container that allowed me to conduct the business of life.
It took about ten minutes for the officer to arrive, and while I waited and invented my stories, I looked around. Observing my surroundings, I sized up the risk of my wallet camping out in plain sight. And when I spotted an over-served man with a blonde, scraggly beard, unkempt clothes, and ruddy red cheeks stumbling back and forth behind me in the parking lot, for the first time, I grew afraid. I watched him lumber in uneven strides, falling one way and then jerking back to correct his movements, and when he neared my car and split his gaze between my rearview window and the well-lit store containing my wallet, I grew terribly suspicious.
Was this man dangerous? Did he want to get into my car? Would he break into the store and steal my wallet? Was he going to ask me for money?
I turned the key in my ignition and placed my hands on the gear shift. A slight wave of ease came over me as I realized I could dash off if he approached my car. With my adrenaline on high alert, I cued 911 on my iPhone, and I kept checking my mirrors, studying him, eyeing him, waiting to see what he would do.
Moments later, he passed me, and as he wandered north up High Street, I rewrote his narrative in my mind. My fear now gone, I was free to be rational. And from a safe distance, I no longer saw him as a singular creature of suspicion--he was no longer a dangerous drunk who was looking for the chance to threaten some part of my life--he was just a man, with a thousand possible reasons for why he just so happened to stumble through a parking lot at the same time my personal crisis (that in the grand scheme of life was not a big deal at all) happened to unfold.
Maybe he was looking at me because he wondered if I was in trouble.
Maybe he self-medicates because he can't afford medical care.
Maybe he wasn't impaired, and just suffers from vertigo.
Maybe he is taking care of his sick wife and didn't have time to shower.
Maybe he was helping a friend with yard work and had one too many celebratory drinks.
Maybe he isn't well, and is forcing himself outside to find food.
Of course, since I had idle time to think, the maybes continued. And the more they continued, the worse I felt about my initial read, about my gut instinct to start the car, cue the authorities, and plan my escape on account of the way he looked to me.
My train of thinking broke seconds later when the police arrived, and I turned my energy to the situation that called me there to begin with. The officer who was dispatched to my location greeted me with a smile, and when I explained my dilemma, she peered through the store window at my wallet and then searched her records for emergency numbers. Even though she didn't have to, she took the time to call the contacts she had. Unfortunately, they didn't answer, but her response helped me feel better about the circumstances. She wrote notes about our interaction, and told me that if anything happened to my wallet, there would now be a police record.
The officer and I parted ways once our exchange was complete, and I spent the entire ride home thinking about both the man in the parking lot and my pleasant encounter with the officer. I wondered what the man's real story was. I wondered how he perceived the distant intersection of our lives. Despite thinking that he was looking at me, perhaps he didn't even notice me there, perhaps he didn't give me a second thought, but perhaps my presence made him just as nervous as his presence made me. Perhaps my presence caused him to fear an altercation with the police, or with whomever he imagined was meeting me.
Despite giving him the benefit of the doubt later, I wondered why my initial gut reaction was fear. What was it about that man that made me afraid? Would have I been afraid under different circumstances? Or was there something about him that would have always triggered a high alert setting? And if there is something about seeing certain people that triggers an innate, survivalist response, where does that response come from? Is our fear the byproduct of a deeply ingrained instinct toward self-preservation or is it something we learn, something culture teaches us over time? Perhaps it is some combination of the two, and if so, when is fear good and when is it bad? And how do we draw the line in such a way that we can keep both ourselves and our respect for humanity safe?
The police, of course, were on their way, so in my situation Sunday evening, the promise of seeing blue and red lights calmed me. If anything happens, they will arrive and stop it, I thought. And the mere fact that my view of them as an ally, as a helper, as a beacon of justice made me wonder about all of the people who would never think to call authorities when they were scared, or desperate, or in need of a small outpouring of help. It seemed so natural to me to pick up the phone because that's what my narrative tells me to do: Call 911 when you're in trouble. The police will help you. When cop cars pull onto the scene, you can relax.
But this isn't a natural response for everyone.
As I drove home from the battery store Sunday night, I thought about how different my narrative looks from the narratives of those who have been raised to avoid authorities, from those who have seen or experienced police brutality, from those who have endured tension, violence, profiling and fear. I thought about those who spend each day hoping to avoid conflict, because they have learned that there are few voices standing up for them, standing up for all forms of justice.
I wondered how many other narratives were out there: not just with our justice system, but with every facet of life. Narratives that are not only shaped through a lens influenced by race, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation, but also through lenses influenced by drug addiction, physical impairments or mental illness. Lenses that alter the way human beings experience and are experienced in the world. Lenses like the one I looked through when I feared an unkempt, middle-aged white man stumbling through the parking lot behind me.
Monday morning, I went back to the store, got my wallet and headed home. Everything resolved itself in a fairly uneventful way, but my brain was still alive with thoughts when I sat down at my computer. Uncertain how to make sense of them all, I smiled when I opened an email from my brother: "Here's your Monday morning writing inspiration," he wrote, and within the body of the email, he sent me David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. Of course since my brother knows me well, he sent the transcript rather than the video, and when I read Wallace's words, I found myself stopped dead in my tracks.
Fully aware of his liberal arts audience, Wallace discusses the value of a liberal arts education (and not the typical "it teaches you how to think" defense, but a meaty defense that explores the idea of losing your arrogance, of learning how to be aware). He talks about how two human beings can experience the same story and derive different truths. He discusses how a true education takes a lifetime, that we will always be working to sharpen our mind and open our eyes. And he talks about the routine of daily life, what we worship and the options we have for how we choose to see our world.
If you're in need of thought about thought, I fully recommend reading the whole thing, but in the interest of time, one idea in particular stuck with me. One idea brought me back to the man in the parking lot, to the idea that we all have a choice about what choose to see or not to see, about what sort of narratives we write. Wallace talks about how we instantly judge the people around us, but that true freedom is taking a step back from our initial read and being open to alternatives. True freedom is about accepting that our view of the world is not absolute, that the things that happen around us are not always about us. True freedom is deciding not to accept the mindless default, and instead it is about choosing to be thoughtful, aware and conscious.
In other words, true freedom is about deciding to give people the benefit of the doubt, and in so doing, releasing ourselves from the grip of negative assumptions, from being absolutely positive that our world is miserable and ill-intentioned, and deciding instead, to see it as multifaceted, to see it as having a variety of truths, a variety of complexities, and a variety of narratives.
My brother had no idea what I was thinking about Monday morning when he sent me that speech, but reading through Wallace's thoughts helped me sort through my own. It framed the way I reflected on my experience, on the questions and curiosities, on the line between instinctual self preservation and irrational fear. I have no answers about any of things I pondered or saw or felt. I still don't know if it was good street-smarts that led me to judge the man who walked behind me, or if my fear suggests a form of calloused cruelty, but I do know that the experience made me think. It made me stop. It made me see value in the process of considering why my default setting was to issue judgement. It made me take a step back and consider various narratives, realizing that though I might see the world one way, that man might see it differently. That while my lens shows me one side of the world, it is no clearer and no better than anyone else's lens; it's just different.
Of course the idealist in me hopes that one day we can arrive at a place where fear isn't so rampant, where more of us can can hear and accept the various narratives around us, and where the police-as-protectors concept is accessible to all people, but I don't want to sound naive. I'm not sure how such change can happen, but I do know that before it is possible, we must first see and admit a need for progress. We must first open our eyes and recognize that we all have different lines of sight. We must choose to dislodge ourselves from the default, and instead, decide to be open to the multiplicities of life.