Something has been bothering me for a few days now.
I was on Humans of New York's website, totally engaged in all of the wonderful stories (as usual), when I read the story of a man who is upset with his social worker.
The man says he was picking through the trash looking for bottles and cans one day, when his social worker walked by. She didn't smile or acknowledge him at all, and when he saw her again he asked why she did this.
The man says, "...at first she denied seeing me. But then she told me that she had been in her ‘private space.’ That really put a stake in my heart."
He goes on to say he's going to write her a letter explaining how her behavior made him feel, and he's using a dictionary to find the perfect words. He says, "I’m using a dictionary because I want the words to be perfect. If you mess up your words, then it’s easy for people to ignore what you’re trying to say."
How heartbreaking is that? And how true is he about using the right words?
I read that story and looked at the man's picture, in which he holds the dictionary, and I could feel his loneliness and, perhaps, invisibility.
What I love most about Humans of New York is the way these pictures and stories help us all feel a little bit more connected and human for having shared tiny stories, often so poignant.
...here's my issue...
On Instagram, people began commenting and really taking this social worker to task.
How could she ignore him?
What does she mean 'personal space?'
On and on the comments flew, people angry and disappointed and sighing heavily in regard to this woman.
But I can understand or at least identify several reasons a social worker (or any host of other people) may have behaved that way.
Perhaps she was trying to spare him feelings of embarrassment if he was picking through trash.
Maybe there is a code of conduct in the social work world that says you must wait for the client to acknowledge you first, lest you make him/her uncomfortable by indicating you two have a professional relationship.
Maybe the man has a history we, as people with tiny slivers of view, do not know.
There are so many likely possibilities. Maybe she's just a heartless, cruel person.
I don't know.
But neither does anyone else, and the fact that she made this man feel invisible doesn't mean that was her intention.
It has bothered me for a few days now, and I'm reminded of a somewhat sensational picture taken a few years ago of a woman at an airport, on her phone, with her infant on the ground in front of her, on a blanket.
The web went crazy. Who was this mother just leaving her infant alone on a blanket while she sat on a phone?
What had become of society that a little technological device mattered more than an actual breathing human, a baby nonetheless?
Turns out the woman had been traveling all day, missed flights and hadn't been in contact with her husband. She'd held the baby all day and finally set the baby down so she could call the airline and her spouse and try to figure out that traveling mess they were entwined in.
But the world didn't see any of that. The world just saw a woman and her baby and a phone and a blanket.
We don't always know the backstory.
We don't always see the full picture.
In fact, more often than not, what we see is carefully edited, curated and molded to send one particular message - and that message doesn't even have to be true.
I think this lack of context is why the issue of compare/contrast and social media has become such a thing. We see snippets of people's lives, often cropped images that edit out everything from acne to cellulite to rancid kids in the background to the pile of laundry splayed out on the floor.
We see the good because that's what sells and that's what we want to see. Who wants to scroll through a tumblr feed of real life when we can peruse a feed of champagne classes clinking and let our imagination do the rest?
We imagine beautiful people at a lovely party in a place like The Hamptons, but those champagne glasses could just as easily be in a rundown duplex on the outskirts of Cincinnati in a house full of people who are wearing tube tops.
Nothing against duplexes, Cincinnati or tube tops.
You get the point.
We've got to remember....context.
Otherwise, we start judging our lives based on false ideas of reality and, worse, we start judging other people - people we haven't even met, based on stories we don't fully know.
I think the man's feelings, the man from Humans of New York, can be honored and heard without necessarily judging the social worker or trying to take her to task for her behavior. I think his feelings, no matter her intention, are legitimate and real.
Sometimes, we can honor that without having to do anything else.
And we can realize that what we see online is part of the story but not all of it - champagne glasses included.