Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Near-life experiences

We've all heard the term "near-death experience." It goes without saying that we go to great lengths to avoid this type of situation. You may not be as familiar with the term "near-life experiences", those incidents that occur when our lives collide with those around us. Oddly enough, it seems that most of us avoid these situations with the same vigor with which we avoid the more deadly variety.

We've developed tactics for avoiding near-life experiences: we don't sit next to someone in a movie theatre unless it's the only vacant seat, we take the empty booth on the other side of the fast food restaurant, we become strangely interested in the floor of the elevator when another person gets in. The more congested an area is, the more we feel our personal space threatened, the more introverted we become. When your face is smashed into some man's armpit on the train, you have to create some kind of barrier, if only a mental one. This explains the seeming paradox that proximity breeds isolation.

Bubba and I had a memorable near-life experience while attending King Kong in a London movie theatre. We had arrived early to the show and were the first ones in the theatre. We took the prime seats: the middle of the first row of the stadium seating (you don't have anyone in front of you and you can put your feet on the railing). While I was using the restroom, another couple entered the theatre and, oddly, took the seats on the end of our row. Another couple entered, and the man actually asked Bubba if he could move down so they could have the middle seats (mind you, NO ONE else was in the theatre!). Bubba moved all right, several rows back. When Bubba related his reason for relocating to me, I was indignant and incredulous. The nerve of some people!

My dad had a near-life experience that yielded a different reaction. He and a co-worker were eating lunch at a mall food court. Their lunch was interrupted when they heard a man yell, "Hey, will you feed me?" Seated at a nearby table was a man in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck down, with a slice of pizza in front of him. My dad and his friend continued to eat their lunch, when the man looked at my dad and again yelled, "Hey, will you feed me?" My dad somewhat hesitantly approached the man and asked "How should we do this?" The man instructed my dad to hold the pizza to his mouth and he'd chew. With some trepidation and awkwardness, my dad helped this man eat his lunch.

When we encounter other people, do we distance ourselves from them or engage with them? Have you ever had a day when a kind word from a stranger is desperately needed? Are we too often impatient and careless in our interactions with others? Do we nourish or neglect? Perhaps we should be less hesitant in engaging in near-life experiences. There seems to be something instructive in the tale of my dad feeding the paralyzed man, something almost biblical, something bordering on a parable.

Even still, I won't be eagerly seeking out an opportunity to ride on a crowded train anytime soon.

(*I borrowed the term "near-life experience" from the title of a book by Olivia Birdsall)


Stacy said...

I must tell you that I love the topic chosen. "Near-life experiences" pretty much describes my mothers mantra. When I was younger this mantra sometimes would embarrass me but now I admire it. I am different from her though. She embraces every opportunity and I prefer to have "near-life experiences" on my terms; when I am feeling my best, look my best, had plenty of sleep, on top of my game, you get the idea. Other times I avoid "near-life experiences" because I am lazy, self consumed, busy or the feeling that another person does not want to engage in any way shape or form and I chalk it up to respecting their space. I think the more we put ourselves out there the more our lives will be enriched. Of course you know that Kim, because it seems that you make a connection with everyone you meet. I know you do not wish to go on a busy train but if you did, you would get off having something in common with someone you were talking to and I love that about you.

Stacy said...

Thanks for the Birthday card. I love getting "real" Mail as well as blogging. It's almost like a "near life experience" I too wish our proximity was different but in the meantime. . . THANK you for thinking of me.
love you.

janel said...

I feel guilty and inspired at the same time. You are a great writer, Kim. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think having kids is one thing that has helped me engage most in the "near-life experiences." It seems like the presence of children and their outgoing ways somehow bridges the distance we feel or make between ourselves and others. Maybe it's the innocence of children. Maybe it's the fact that kids haven't learned the "social graces" of purposely ignoring each other yet. Sometimes there are people I wish my kids would ignore (like someone with a big mole on their face or a prosthetic which they inevitably stare and/or point to). Good thing kids are around to keep us humble and give us perspective...among other things. : )