Rush hour in Manhattan. The crowds piling up, waiting for trains. I stood on the platform as men and women pressed in around me. It was early autumn and still warm enough that the station felt muggy—as if someone had turned on a hot shower and let it run.
I was in the city on business for a few days and on my way to meet a friend for dinner. Lights appeared in the long dark tunnel, and when the train finally screeched to a halt, it displaced enough air to send a breeze through the crowd and cool my skin. An outgoing stream of passengers filtered through us, spilling into the station and toward the exits.
I found a place in the car and reached for a pole to steady myself. Soon other passengers were there—some stretching over my shoulders, others with arms at rib height, taking hold. The car hummed down the tracks. Someone spoke loudly in the back on a mobile phone, and the tinny sound of headphones emitted fractured melodies into the air. We stood body to body, so close we might as well have embraced.
I thought about how different my commute is back home, driving through neighborhood streets and onto slow-moving highways. Traveling by car has a curious effect on the mind: the longer I drive alone in my vehicle, the easier it is to forget that behind every wheel is another human being just like me—not merely some obstacle there to thwart my journey home. We disappear from one another behind glass and metal as we wear a lonely path between destinations.
That’s not quite so easy to do on a train. No matter how hard you try to keep to yourself, unexpected encounters are bound to take place. Standing there, I wondered: If instead of slogging down a busy highway each day, the people who usually drove there had to take a train together, how different would the experience be? If we stood person to person, would we wrestle with the same rage or somehow find it within ourselves to be more humane?
Life in all its immensity had brought us together, reminding us that though we come and go our separate ways, we are still connected.
Over the years, I’ve learned there’s something powerful that can happen in a face-to-face encounter. At times we look at the individual before us and recognize something we cannot name. We see into each other’s eyes and sense a profound connection that needs no history or language to affirm it. Often this transpires in a flash—in a split-second epiphany as we pass on busy streets, or from one grocery aisle to the next. It’s a moment of recognition, the revelation of a bond that always exists but we often fail to appreciate.
When we meet another person, we come in contact with all he carries within him: the marks of a history already written, the potential of a future yet to be; relationships with friends and families and neighbors and all their struggles; fears and desires; an inner life known fully only by God. Whether we realize it or not, it’s in these moments that we encounter the deep mystery of existence: how it is that each of us carries a world within our one person—a reality multiplied across the globe over 7 billion times.
As the train headed toward downtown, it occurred to me that we were strangers, and yet somehow more than that. We were fellow humans, alive, sharing these few moments together breathing earth’s oxygen, or at least the version available on a train. Life in all its immensity had brought us together, reminding us that though we come and go our separate ways, we are still connected—like concentric circles on a lake rippling out from us and into eternity.
God most often reaches us through the flesh and blood of our fellow man, stranger and loved one alike. If nothing else, on their faces and in their gaze or embrace, we receive affirmation of our own existence—that another person has noted our being here on earth, that we are not here alone.
For the Christian, this is part of our calling—to make meaningful connections wherever we go and thereby share the love of God, even in the smallest of moments. There are people all around you in need of just that. Look up from your life once in a while and see for yourself. They’re everywhere, and they just might be looking to you.