I Don’t Understand

The lights dimmed and wrapped us in a cloak of dark, while air whooshing through the cabin distanced us from conversation or any discernible sound of movement. Passengers distracted themselves amid the glow of screens, retreating into those electronic cocoons bereft of thought or intention. Lost in my own cocoon, U2 reminded me that most of us still haven’t found what we’re looking for, and my mind wandered to the old man I encountered in the airport just a few minutes ago.

We were standing in line to get a cup of coffee. Of course, that is an overly simplified description of the process for acquiring a cup of coffee. Most of us barely notice the complexity of getting a cup of coffee anymore – we’ve grown numb to it as words like latte, cappuccino, americano, grande, venti, etc. have permeated our notion of coffee, forcing an unseen acceptance of options and complication. Watching the old man in front of me, I realized that my numbness to the complexity didn’t remove it for him.

I couldn’t hear his order or interaction, he wore a hearing aid and spoke very quietly. The line was long, the barista’s moved quickly, and people bustled around, jockeying for position to intercept their wildly complex beverages at the pickup counter. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the older gentlemen, waiting patiently for his drink. His white straw fedora marked him as a soul from a different era and he seemed completely anachronistic to the scene around him. 

His drink finally arrived, he had ordered an espresso. The little cup came forth and I immediately wondered if that was really what he wanted. Noticing the lightness of the cup, he opened the lid and expressed surprise at the contents. He asked the barista, “what’s this? Where’s the rest of it? I don’t understand.” His tone wasn’t aggressive, it was displayed massive confusion. The busy barista, young and oblivious, asked what he ordered but was unable to interpret the gap. People moved around the old man, grabbing frapuccinos, pour-overs,  and chai teas. He just stood there, unsure.

Walking over, I explained that an espresso was just a shot of coffee and he probably wanted a latte which would add steamed milk. He turned his head and asked me to repeat into the ear with his hearing aid. I smiled and repeated myself, suggesting he ask them to make him a latte. “It’s ok, he said, they’re really busy.” Then he turned and walked away, moving toward the edge of the wide hall to avoid busy travelers rushing to their gates.

For a moment, I saw it all, the overwhelming complexity of this world we live in. Complexity that is normally invisible to me.  What a vision it must be to that old man who has watched the world change dramatically over his lifetime. I figure he was in his  late-80’s, maybe even in his 90’s. Likely born in the 1930’s, he would have experienced unbelievable advances on all fronts. He may even remember some of the challenges of World War II.

What really struck me about that gentlemen was his simple gentleness and selfless release of expectation. His was a kindly face, with no hurried look of impatience or frustration. Even in the confusion of his drink, his was an expression of innocent acceptance. There was no confrontation, tantrum, or sign of grumpiness.

Moving through our lives, we grow from the seed of innocence and wonder to our peak powers; a place in which we can no longer claim innocence and much of our wonder has turned to the pride of our own convictions. There, we are knowledgable, aware, worldly, and capable of claiming our own. We navigate the complexities with our experience, claim our territory with our confidence, and hustle along to the myriad destinations before us. Always before us.

As life heads toward its sunset, we lose some quickness in our step, the drive for those destinations begins to subside, the world begins to look complex again, and our need to “get ours” starts to fade. Falling from our peak, we see degradation in those powers, and the confidence we once felt begins to falter against the pace and complexity around us. Here, we start to shift toward a new form of that innocence we no longer remember.

Now my “contemplative” playlist has shifted and Jamey Johnson is playing along with the journey of this post as he sings “you should have seen it in color.”  My mind returns to that old man walking away from his coffee experience. Pausing about 30 feet away, he turned and mouthed “thank you” to me. For what? For a small kindness. For taking a moment to try to help. For caring, even just a little bit.

Time is running away from us even as we find ourselves running through the airport. The jumble of priorities, distractions, and complexities often conspires against us. Moving rapidly toward some point on the horizon, we run past so many opportunities. Wherever we sit on that continuum between our peak powers and our innocence, we all get lost in the complexity.

I’m heading to the beach. My plan is to simplify for a bit and see if I can dump the noise for a moment or two. The complexity is still there. The demands, distractions, and opportunities all remain. Perhaps with some intention, I might reorder it a bit. Maybe I can reclaim some of that humanity that gets bustled away in the mad dash. My thanks to that old man who helped remind me that there is a whole lot of world happening outside of my little bubble.

Showing 2 comments
  • Jerry Berry

    Again, ample cause for your Mom and I to be proud of you and your membership in the ‘ Decent Human Being Club’.

  • Jarilyn Berry

    Love this story. Enjoy your trip xx

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