Lessons from strangers

About 2 months ago I was in New Jersey doing research for an upcoming book. At the end of the day I left the hotel and went searching for food within walking distance. When I left the grocery store, I spotted a fairly disheveled guy who was probably in his 50s wandering aimlessly around the parking lot. He saw me and started in my direction. We met halfway and he asked me if I knew where he could find a shoe store.

Before I could get a few words out, he started talking. Over the next few minutes he told me that he and his girlfriend had just got out of rehab and lost their apartment and all of their possessions. They were living in a hotel and trying to get back on their feet.

He told me all of this before I could even inform him that I lived 6 hours away and had no idea where they could buy shoes. When I did manage to get in a word in and told him, he didn’t mind. I could tell he wanted, or maybe needed, to talk. It was a sweltering afternoon so we sat down on the sidewalk in the shade of the store awnings and ended up chatting for around 20 minutes as he told me about their lives and struggles. He wasn’t complaining though and I could hear the optimism and hope in his voice. We even got in a little hockey-related chat (he was an Islander fan, poor guy). At the end of the conversation, I told him that I was sorry things were so rough for him and wished him the best. He responded in a way I didn’t expect. He said something like, “This is the happiest I’ve ever been. We’ve got our lives back and it’s a wonderful day. That’s all that matters.” I’ll never forget that.

As someone who is not married and has no children and for whom the future holds neither, I tend to define myself by my work and my “art” (I hate using that word, so pretentious). I’m always striving to create more, to get better, to do bigger things because that will ultimately be my only legacy. At times, I feel like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill. When I get the to top, with a new book or another successful year in business, the boulder just rolls back down the hill and I start over again. It’s a never-ending cycle and as a result, I occasionally struggle with discontentment, usually only for fleeting moments, but others times long stretches where I feel creatively lost and empty and wonder if I’m on the right path.

On that day though, I learned so much from that guy, with his almost comically thick Long Island accent, ragged clothes and positive attitude. It’s amazing what lessons other people, even perfect strangers, can teach you if you’re willing to listen. It’s a daily struggle, but I keep reminding myself to live in the day and not get caught up in what could be or what might have been.

Thoreau wrote, I think in Walden, “It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.” When you look at your life, it’s easy to think about what you want. A better job, a nicer car, a bigger house, more money, a new city, etc. but contentment won’t come from any of those things. Instead, when you look at your life, see what you do have. I’d wager you have more than a guy living in a hotel room with nothing more than the clothes on his back.

Take a moment and close your eyes and think about someone you love or care about, even if they can annoy the heck out of you sometimes. That’s where you’ll find your peace. Appreciate life’s simple joys. Love your friends and your family. Be grateful for the breath you just took.

And be happy. Above all, be happy.

Tony Urban