Whenever I am in a large, crowded place and have a few minutes to people-watch, I find myself playing a little game I call judging a book by its cover.
You can’t do that, of course, but it is fun to try. So I watch somebody walking by and try to fill in the blanks of their life.
Airports are especially good for this activity, since they are filled with hundreds of people going in a hundred different directions, all wrapped up in their own thoughts, their own reality.
There’s a young woman with a big smile, blonde, petite, 20-something, in jeans and a sweatshirt.
College student maybe, perhaps a grad student. Going places, happy, has her life all together.
There is an older man, sitting alone, not smiling, simply staring into space. Doesn’t look happy.
Maybe he has lost his spouse, or perhaps his job. Maybe he was laid off because of age discrimination. He might be on his way to a job interview, or maybe he’s going to visit his kids.
Over there is a young black man wearing jeans and a hoodie. He has tattoos and a goatee. He looks tough, a little edgy, restless. Something is troubling him. He might be running away from something, or perhaps running to something.
It’s a pointless game, of course, and ridiculous. I have no idea what is going on in those people’s lives and it is pointless to speculate.
The young blonde woman could be a total mess inside, dealing with some unspeakable tragedy, simply hanging on by a thread, the smile thin armor against the pain she feels inside.
The older man could be a big-time lawyer on his way to try a prestigious case, simply taking a few minutes to gather his thoughts. And the young black fellow could be a physician, a cancer researcher on his way to present an important paper at a prestigious medical conference.
On a recent trip my bride, her sister and her husband and I were sitting in St. Louis Lambert International Airport. Since my three traveling companions all have varying degrees of mobility issues, we were seated in a wheelchair area at one of the airport’s many gates.
Sitting nearby was a lady in a wheelchair, older, in her 60s at least, shepherding a young child, a little girl. The lady was white, the little girl black.
My mind filled in the blanks. An indulgent grandma, perhaps battling arthritis or recovering from a joint replacement, and a precocious child.
It wasn’t long before a conversation ensued. The little girl, it turned out, was 3, and, like many a 3-year-old, never saw a stranger.
She soon had my brother-in-law engaged in a game of drawing pictures of whatever fruit she named on a little piece of paper. Since he has a slew of grand and great-grandchildren, he played right along like an old pro.
Which is when the lady in the wheelchair began to tell us her story. The girl was her grandchild, they were from Wichita, where the flight was bound, and they were going home.
They had been in St. Louis attending an awards ceremony for a paramedic from that area. The paramedic was driving through Mississippi a few months ago when he came upon a terrible traffic accident.
The woman in the wheelchair, the woman’s daughter, her brand-new husband and another family member were driving through Mississippi when their vehicle was hit head-on.
The family was on its way home after a honeymoon cruise for the daughter and her hubby. The husband and the other family member were killed, the woman and her daughter severely injured.
The woman was still in the wheelchair as the result of her injuries. Her daughter was healing physically, she said, but regaining a measure of mental and emotional wellness was taking considerably longer.
The little girl, whose infectious laugh had everyone in the gate area smiling, was just one of three children the woman was now helping her daughter raise. She said she had made the trip to thank the paramedic, who was the first on the scene and was instrumental in saving her life and that of her daughter.
Suddenly the burdens of an early-morning flight didn’t seem so bad.
Just then another family appeared, an older woman, a younger woman and a young boy. This turned out to be grandma, her daughter and son, coming home from a trip to Disney World.
The family was white. The boy also happened to be 3, meaning he and the little girl became instant friends.
When mom plopped him down on the floor with a plastic plate filled with chicken nuggets and fries, it was only natural he would share with his new friend. He took a bite of a nugget and returned it to the plate. The little girl then picked up the same nugget and took a bite. It wasn’t long until the plate was empty and they were on to something else.
There were two lessons in this random encounter. You never know what burden another person is carrying, you can never know their story, until you ask.
And children are totally and completely blind to the differences of race, creed and religion. They don’t see a child that doesn’t look like them, they simply see a friend and playmate.
I pray we will no longer judge someone until we know their story, and approach our human differences with a childlike propensity for not seeing skin tone but simply the heart and soul that lies beneath.