We have a lot of commandments and exhortations related to how we treat our fellow human beings. Many times we are very challenged by them – to love the creation, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to be empathic, to honor others more than ourselves…the list is almost endless. One idea that makes this more possible is if we find other people interesting, if we look for their good, if we ask for their story. Everyone has a story, always a fascinating one. Even people you've known for years probably have a whole story you haven't heard.
We're busy, we're distracted, other people are in our way. We rarely stop to talk to them -- or more importantly, to listen to them. We too frequently attend cocktail party style events where everyone is looking over each other's heads (I'm very short so people are always looking over my head!) to see who they can/must speak to next.
And so it was a rare pleasure the other day to sit down next to strangers at an event and hear about their lives.
To our right was seated a man named Bob the Builder. I'm sure he has a last name but we weren't told it. And he was a flesh and blood human being, not a cartoon character.
We learned a lot of lessons from Bob over the salmon and cappuccino. For one, Bob is not actually a builder but I guess our host couldn't resist the cutesy alliteration. He is an architect. And he has actually designed the large and elaborate homes of many of our friends and acquaintances.
Although I happen to love architecture, that was not what made Bob interesting. Bob is more than an architect. Bob is someone who, in his words, "sees the big picture". What does this mean in his profession? It means that he cares about the lives of the people he works with – and not just as an artistic construct, not just to help him design their homes appropriately.
Having lost a five year-old son to leukemia, Bob may be more aware of the preciousness of life than we are.
Bob cares about them as individuals, he cares about their lives. When one of Bob's clients was in the middle of a painful divorce, the husband wanted Bob to build him a grand new home. And despite the potential income, Bob refused. Bob hadn't given up hope of reconciliation; he was concerned about how the children would view it; he thought it was a rash decision at the wrong time. Bob didn't limit his role to that of a paid professional. He didn't make his concerns solely financial. Bob behaved like a caring friend.
In another situation, Bob was approached by a relative of a current client with a request to design a home of extravagant dimensions. Again Bob refused. "Besides my business, I have my wife and daughters to spend time with and my volunteer work," Bob replied. "I'm not willing to sacrifice any of those for more money." I was impressed with Bob's priorities and his ability to say no.
And what is his volunteer work that he was unwilling to relinquish? Bob is a chaplain in the prison system. He regularly visits convicts and helps them plan their future, on the inside and on the outside. His commitment to those prisoners was non-negotiable.
Having lost a five year-old son to leukemia, Bob may be more aware of the preciousness of life than we are. He certainly has deep reservoirs of compassion and caring.
Bob was quite open, eager even, to talk about his life, and my husband and I were avid listeners. It's always awe-inspiring to be around people of integrity.
It wasn't just that Bob reaffirmed that people are indeed the most fascinating of all but that he taught us about really living a life that focuses on others. You don't have to be a rabbi to counsel and care. You don't have to be in one of the traditional "giving" professions to make your work meaningful.
You just have to listen to other people – and respond.