Yesterday afternoon I met a friend to go walking on campus. As we started out I said to her: “I’m going to give you a challenge. Tell the fifth person who approaches us: You look beautiful today.”
At first she felt uncomfortable with the idea but eventually, after some prodding, agreed to give it a try. The fifth person was a young man in t-shirt and jeans. As he approached, all she could do was look at him and smile but the words wouldn’t come out. Seeing her smiling at him, he said “Hello” and kept walking.
I had a good laugh, then asked for a “challenge” of my own. I was to say something in a foreign language to the 7th person to approach us. This turned out to be a large young man. I looked at him as he approached, smiled and said “Bon soir!” He looked back at me, but said nothing. Maybe he doesn’t speak French.
Challenges after that included asking for directions to the Post Office (even though I know where it is) and saying various phrases of greeting or compliment. As I said to my friend, most people love to be acknowledged and addressed pleasantly, especially when they least expect it, from a cheerful stranger. Some people, mainly older people, were only too happy to respond with things like: “Oh, yes! It is a lovely evening for walking!” or “Yes, I am enjoying my walk!”
At one point a man was approaching us. As he neared, I said hello and, once he responded and I had his attention, I asked, “So what’s the best thing that happened to you today?”
“Jesus!!!!!” he cried out as though someone had slapped him. But he didn’t mean that Jesus was the best thing that had happened. He meant it as a cry of helplessness. “Now DAT is a hard question!! Whey, boy!” He walked on a little bit, then turned his head back and said, “I’ll have to think long and hard about that one.”
That said a lot.
At one point on the walk, I said to my friend “Let’s see how much we can pick up about a person as they approach us, from the way they walk, hold their bodies, etc. Let’s take this woman approaching now.”
Compared to everyone else in their jogging suits, track pants, t-shirts, she looked somewhat odd. She was a large woman somewhere in her 50′s, wearing what appeared to be a loose, misshapen flannel nightgown and new track shoes. She had on no bra and her large, long breasts were bouncing against her torso. Her hair, even from a distance, was seen clearly as an unruly mop. My first thought was that she had escaped from an institution.
“Is it me or does she look a bit odd?” I said to my friend. “Something doesn’t look quite right,” she agreed. As we neared the woman, we both looked into her face. She looked back at us, gave us the warmest, most beautiful smile and said “Hello.” All of a sudden her appearance disappeared and all we saw was her smile. Out of all the “normal-looking” people we had passed by or interacted with through our “challenges”, she is the one who had greeted us in what felt like openness and sincerity.
We felt bad about having judged her by her appearance. Yes, she looked “odd” because of the nightgown . . . but what if it wasn’t a nightgown? What if she had a medical problem and couldn’t wear pants and decided to wear a jersey dress? What if she had on no bra because she was a free spirit or because for reasons unknown to us, she was unable to wear anything constricting in that area (plasters? injury?). What if she just didn’t care what people thought once she was comfortable?
Toward the end of the walk I suggested we look at everyone we pass and find something beautiful about them. The first person was a female guard, sitting on a step. “This will be hard,” my friend said. The guard had a hard, solemn face, but the first thing that struck me was how her legs were neatly crossed and her hands were clasped in her lap, almost in a sacred manner. As we neared, both looking into her face, she broke into a beautiful smile (eyes and mouth) that completely lit her up and transformed her appearance.
“Lovely smile!” my friend and I agreed as we walked on.
The next person had her back to us, but I saw her laughing and that was her beauty. She also had long legs that she elegantly folded as she got into the car.
The next person was a pudgy young woman in black/navy blue clothing. By looking at her we got a host of impressions: she was determined, focused, honest, she gives it to you as it is, no need for pretense, she’s a good friend, she’s serious about what she does, she’s caring, she’d rather be alone than fake an interaction. She had lots of beauty to her.
It doesn’t matter how someone looks. There is something beautiful about everyone. Based on appearances, we are all quick to judge someone, in some way, at some time, even if we don’t mean to—due to stereotypes, social conditioning and association from past experiences. But give everyone a chance, be pleasant with them, and you will see who they are.