At about eleven o’clock the other morning, I was coming back through the park from the shops. It was a morning like many we’ve had in London recently – quite cold, about 7C, slightly misty, and although not actually raining, the atmosphere was damp enough to make the metalled path wet.
There was no other person in sight. The children’s playground was silent and deserted. There was no wind to move the bare branches of the trees. The only birds I was aware of were a robin singing his poignant little song somewhere in a tree or hedge close by, and one of the park’s resident band of crows stalking imperiously through the damp grass.
I rounded a bend in the path and started to descend the slight hill towards my exit. As I did so I became aware of a figure at the bottom of the hill coming towards me. It was too far away for me to make out, in that misty, overcast light. any detail. But as we drew closer, I saw it was a woman, medium height, short grey hair, maybe in her mid-fifties and wearing a three-quarter length coat. I had never seen her before.
Some people, as you pass them in the street, glance your way and say, “Good morning,” or whatever. Others make it plain, some distance before you actually pass each other, that they want no contact – they look the other way, or make out to be absorbed in thought. But then, occasionally something else takes place.
As this woman and I passed each other, we looked at each other and instantly, from both of us came a completely spontaneous smile. It was not one of those fleeting half-smiles. It was free, open, fully meant and felt. Then we were past each other and gone. I didn’t look back and I’m quite sure she didn’t either – it hadn’t been that sort of smile. It had had nothing to do with gender; it had been in no way sexual. Yet brief as the exchange had been, it had carried within it something very powerful; some sense of absolute recognition.
Recognition of what, though? I had never seen her before, nor she me. There had clearly been no physical recognition. We were two strangers who had passed one morning in a park – and were gone thereafter from each other’s life. But something of it remained, and remains with me now.
As I continued my walk back home, I cleared everything from my mind in order to try and see that brief exchange for what it had been. And gradually, with a sense of something I can only describe as wonder, it came to me. At that moment of passing, at that moment when our glances met and we smiled, some part of me recognized its own self in her; and in her likewise, that same part of her recognized itself in me. It was not personal; it had nothing to do with male or female; black or white; affluent or destitute; or of any race or nationality. It was that which, like a single river with countless tributaries, flows within every one of us and is common to us all. It is that which, when the temporary trappings of our individual selves are stripped away, is who we really, ultimately are. It is life, unstoppable, eternal. We are life. And we are one.
Some years ago, I wrote a brief meditation on this subject, slightly amended for this post –
“The problems of our world stem not so much from our failure to act as though we – its peoples – are one, as from our failure to recognize that we – its peoples – are one. We have, for millennia accorded life-or-death importance to superficial differences which are of no more significance in the world than the mosquito on the back of the elephant. Thus we resist one of the most profound and uplifting truths of ourselves as human beings.
Whoever you encounter and wherever, look into your brother’s eye, your sister’s eye and see there yourself.”