To some this may come as a surprise, but to those who know me best, they know this as truth. I may be an outgoing and up-for-anything kind of person for most of the day, but when it’s time to recharge, I can become a recluse like the best of them. The people-dodging, phone-averting, house-hiding type.
It’s not just that I enjoy my quiet time each night. That I totally do. But after so many hours of being “on”, when it’s time to be “off”, my off switch can get stuck to the point where I actually have mini panic moments when the phone rings or someone knocks at my door. Or when I run to the grocery to pick up a few necessities and I inadvertently pass by an acquaintance, I try to navigate down a neighboring aisle so as to not be probed to start a conversation. It’s not that I’m antisocial per se, it’s just that my way of prepping for another day of “extrovertedness” requires some time giving my face muscles and my bubbly personality some R & R. And I mean a rest with a blanket covered up to my nose and a good flick on the tube.
As with any hibernation, a premature jolt back to reality catches even me off guard and my “A” game tends to be taken down a notch to be more like a “B” or “C” scrimmage. So when we met on the sidewalk as I was in my fog, meandering to gather the mail, I had to internally slap myself on the face to wake up, be on, and be present.
Our neighborhood is a quiet one. That’s what we love most about living outside of the city. We could count the stars each night if we wanted to and wildlife is in abundance, so much so that suicidal deer are regular guests on our country roads. Most of my neighbors keep to themselves, but a few have regular dates with their dogs and the sidewalk.
The day was beautiful for November – unseasonably warm and the beautiful array of fall colors made it feel like I was living in a Bob Ross painting with his pretty happy trees. I had just gotten home from an errand and saw a package in the mailbox, so even though my body yearned to be closed up inside the house with the blinds drawn, I opted to get the mail, a quick undertaking I told myself.
He was walking down the sidewalk in front of my house at the same time that I would pass to reach my destination, so by the time I saw him I realized there was no hiding from the inevitable. I was going to have to engage in a friendly conversation. I smiled at my neighbor and said what every “nice-but-I-don’t-want-to-talk” person says, “Beautiful day isn’t it?” Instead of mumbling a short, one-word answer and continuing on his path, he stopped, turned his gaze to me, and started a full-fledged dialog.
I think I would have been alright with a little friendly chat, but the conversation evolved to touch on complicated topics such as global warming and ended with more details than I care to recall about his digestive struggles and a recent surgery he had to rectify it. An “over-sharer” for sure, and this typical “word-vomit” queen wasn’t prepped and ready to take on what was being dished out.
I kept scooting back closer to the house, trying to give the non-verbal cues that it was time to wrap up the conversation, but he wasn’t buying them and just continued. Right before I mentally told myself I had had enough, he looked at me and shared that while he had been through a lot, he could never complain. He was grateful for miracle workers in his life, and his doctor was one. He had given him a way to live again through his surgery. So he was going to celebrate that he could walk around the neighborhood and live life more comfortably thanks to all that his doctor had done for him.
As I paused, taking in what he just said, I smiled, realizing just who this neighbor was. I had met him before, at Halloween this year as I took my kiddos door-to-door collecting more sweets than their buckets could hold and their bellies could handle. I recalled the house he lives in just a few down and around the turn because that night he had gone out of his way to talk to my littles about their costumes in great depth and teetered them into the uncomfortable lengthiness zone of conversation as well.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my husband shared later that this guy had suffered a brain injury. Working as a physical therapist in this specific field, he can more easily identify and relate to individuals who are dealing with the life-long effects of an injury so severe, and the compassion he exudes for those touched in this way saves him a spot in heaven for sure. Here I was being irritated by him for not conforming to societal norms when it comes to casual conversations with strangers. But there was more to the story, to his story, and when I found myself in the same situation on the sidewalk, I realized that his story had even more pages than I would have thought.
Don’t all of ours? Aren’t we all hiding behind a mask of make-up and make-believe most days, answering the most basic of questions with the most basic of answers. “Good morning, how are you doing today?” “Fine.” But we aren’t fine, really. We may be ecstatic, literally about to jump out of our own skin with excitement around some news we just heard. Or maybe we are livid for even being asked the question before we can douse our daily dose of caffeine down. Or something may be weighing heavy on our hearts, and just waking up that day is an accomplishment. Whatever the case, “fine” is never the true answer is it?
I don’t know his name, this neighbor of mine. I don’t know his full story, except for the fact that he has seasonal allergies that the upcoming drop in temperatures will push into high gear. And now, thank heavens, he doesn’t look pregnant any more since he had had surgery and lost some weight. His words exactly, I promise! I don’t know him; not to the degree that I could or should. And he definitely doesn’t know me since he tends to catch me in my withdrawn stupors.
But I do know something. I know he lives his life outside of himself, not hiding behind his own worries or thoughts. He doesn’t stop and question what others think before he says. He takes each question at face value, accepting that his converser wants a real answer, not a sugar-coated meaningless “fine”. He doesn’t let himself stand in his own way, and he praises goodness every time he sees it, no matter who he sees it through.
I have so much to learn. Like how I should always have five minutes to spare to talk to someone who actually wants to talk back. How I shouldn’t dodge someone I know in the grocery just because I didn’t put on my makeup or shower yet that day. (I know, gross right? But we all have been there!) I need to start answering the phone, not sending it to voicemail. And stop hiding when the doorbell rings… well, maybe if it’s at an odd hour and no one in their right mind should be out trying to make conversations. Then hiding may be warranted.
I don’t know my neighbor’s side of our encounter, but I venture to say that our short interaction left him as uplifted as it did me. I’m hopeful that as he finished his stroll, he ran into others like me, originally dodging human interaction. I hope that he spoke to them anyway. I hope he left a nugget of his life with them, too, to think on… and I hope he continues to do it everywhere he goes.
We don’t know the title of everyone’s book or what’s written on each page. We don’t know the underlying themes of their life or where the plot thickens. We don’t have to know any of the twists or turns, but we do have to know one thing. Their story matters. And it matters enough for you to hear whatever excerpt they share. They are worth at least that, and so are you. Don’t close your book and hide beneath the hardback. Be like my neighbor, an open book that is, and share a piece of you with all you meet whether others care to listen or not. Because who cares? Really. And that other person may need to hear exactly what you have to say at that exact moment. So stop wandering through life, just doing the motions. And definitely stop hiding. Live. Fully.
Our stories aren’t meant to be hoarded in the basement or dust collectors on a shelf. God knows I have a ton that currently are. But we are meant to be read. And we are called to love one-another enough to listen when someone’s book is begin shared like a book-on-tape with the play button lodged.
I came inside after my unexpected conversation feeling a bit lighter and way more refreshed than any hibernation could do in fact. I felt recharged like my car had just been jolted with jumper cables. I breathed in fresh air, I let the sun kiss my face, and I listened to the words of someone who needed to speak. I didn’t do much, but I got so much more in return.
Some days I may still need to recoil, but when God places people in our lives at times we may not deem fit, I vote to give them a chance. Because their words could leave a lasting impression, shaping your story as you author the book of your life.