On Friday I was walking home from work and had an awkward encounter that was really only remarkable in its triviality. I suspect most of us have these: those moments when we aren’t quite sure what to do and find that uncertainty magnified by the pettiness, or petite-ness of the event. Mine was extraordinarily ordinary.
I came upon an elderly couple walking toward me, taking up the bulk of the sidewalk. In these sorts of situations I generally step to my right and nod as we cross paths. This wasn’t going to work. I could tell by their pace and mine that I would meet them precisely at that point where a giant elm tree and its root pressed up against the sidewalk. I had a choice: I could sprint to beat them past the narrows of the walkway; I could slow down, or stop, and let them by; or I could skirt around the right side of the tree and pass them unawares. I opted for the latter. I’m not certain why; it meant that there would be no opportunity for niceties and perhaps I wasn’t in the mood for even a simple nod. At any rate, I slipped behind the tree, and was surprised to discover that they weren’t past the tree as I passed them. They were just in front of the tree (coming from their direction). I returned to the sidewalk, and noticed out of the corner of my eye – as I forged forward – the gentleman bending down. He was picking up a beer can that lay beside the walk: it was a Laker (a local brew) most famous for the tag line ‘Mak’er a Laker.”
I was well passed them before the event floated from my eyes to my mind. I began to wonder: was he doing this in an effort to keep the street clean? Or did he stoop, instead, for the 15 cents (or so) that this can would fetch at the bottle depot – maybe even glad to beat me to the treasure? Tellingly, my curiousity about his motives brought my own motives for slipping behind the tree into relief. Was he a good Samaritan to the planet while I was ignoring my neighbour? Or was I making space for an elderly couple, one of whom was really an entrepreneur with a good sense for freebies?
My decision to step around the tree hardly seemed to be a decision; it was more of an instinctual act and so not readily available for analysis. Nor, indeed, are the whys of the elderly gentleman ready at hand, so I can hardly make sense of his motives. For that matter, they do not much matter. He did a good thing – possibly for one of the two above reasons, or perhaps both, or maybe even something altogether different (it could be he collects Laker cans for a hobby). But in retrospect, it struck me that we make so many decisions on the spur of the moment that have unintended consequences. These split minute decisions are largely – and miraculously – safe, sensible and sound. It is surely a mystery that this is so and more marvelous still is the gift given us from time to time to pause and ponder the wonder of these small encounters and they way they make our lives simply interesting.