Today at work my boss received a phone call informing him that his niece had suddenly died. My coworker walked into my office to tell me, in case there was anything urgent I needed to discuss with him before he left the office. There was nothing urgent, but even if there had been, That would be insane, I thought. It is profoundly strange when these kinds of moments happen in an office, when the desks and the files and the FedEx packages and the screensavers and the “Best Regards” are suddenly stripped away. It is not the environment to receive such a phone call, and I was impressed by how he handled it. He shut his door briefly, then took a slow walk around the office, completely composed, and left. I felt strange for the rest of the day, because I had wanted to give him some acknowledgement, offer just the words “I’m sorry” before he left. I debated e-mailing him after he was gone but wondered if that would be crossing some boundary, and then I realized how crazy that truly is—that these kinds of places shape us in such a way that we are afraid to acknowledge a person’s basic emotional makeup, let alone their mourning, their understanding of death. Something told me that it would be inappropriate to e-mail him, and I know in my gut that whatever line of reasoning I used is one that has been stripped of humanness and understanding. It isn’t just offices, though. Even if I see someone sobbing on the train, or in a park, on the street—my instinct is to ask them if they are okay, can I get them anything, a bottle of water, but…I don’t. Because that is what I have learned not to do. There are places in the world where public expressions of grief are not just tolerated but encouraged. Imagine painting your body or wearing a certain color to alert the other members of your society that you are in mourning. Imagine how colorful everything would be.
Today I was walking to the train after work, when I inadvertently made eye contact with a smiling, wild-eyed man standing still in the middle of the sidewalk on Park Avenue a few yards in front of me. I wasn’t sure if he was high, schizophrenic, or just bored—maybe none, maybe all three—so I started to walk more to the right, to avoid being in his path, and he moved in the same direction. I walked faster, hoping he would move out of the way, but he sped up also, and when I tried to walk past him, he stopped directly in my path, inappropriately close to me, and stuck out his hand. “Shake my hand,” he said. “Tell me your name.” I swerved out of his way and kept walking. “You little bitch,” he said, under his breath. I felt afraid, but the feeling of rage that overcame me was worse, I think. I kept walking, but I wanted to turn around and tell him that he is what is wrong with everything, that finding ways to exact revenge on other human beings is evil, that he clearly hasn’t come to grips with whatever has happened to him in his life, that no one would ever love him, that he was never going to be okay. But then I felt evil, and I wondered if he was even aware that he inhabited his own physical body, or what would have happened if I had been psychologically equipped in that moment to just shake his hand.