Diane Millis will share three articles over the next three months about the power and significance of encounters.
To A Visionary Whose Name I’ll Never Know
This is to you, lady who smiled at me
as I came out of the subway at 14th Street
and walked down 6th Avenue in the winter of ’74
having just arrived in New York. Gentle feathers
of snow had just begun falling from the black.
I felt myself taken into your eyes, and suddenly
was no longer a confused young man
wondering whether every next step was the right one,
but a light-being, love built into his cells,
leaning forward, poised to give.
Thirty-five years later
I still walk those tunnels of your eyes
down the line of your smile
toward that person you saw in me.
Never underestimate the enduring power of a brief encounter.
Decades later, the poet Max Reif still remembers the immediacy of that moment when he met the unknown woman: I felt myself taken into your eyes. Even though the two of them did not exchange a word, he felt seen, and her gaze made all the difference.
We can only imagine how many people this visionary woman must have passed on the streets of New York City that day. What was it that impelled her to turn to him? Did she see something particularly divine in this young man or had she cultivated the habit of beholding everyone as a sacred being? I suspect it was both, yet we’ll never know for sure.
All I know is I want to be like her—a visionary.
I want to learn how to turn my full attention to more of the persons I meet.
I want to learn how to really see them, not categorically (a young, confused, white man) but compassionately (a light being, love built into his cells…. poised to give).
I want to learn how to become a super-encounterer like she is.
Approaches to Encounter
In the 1990s, information scientist Sandra Erdelez studied about 100 people to see how they engaged with serendipity, that is, unexpected inspiration and guidance. She found that people fell into three groups:
- “Non-encounterers”—those persons who stuck to their to-do lists and kept a tight focus;
- “Occasional encounterers”—those folks who every so often stumbled upon guidance from unexpected places or sources, yet didn’t seek it; and
- “Super-encounterers”—those who believed they would find treasures even in the oddest places, (for example, a Victorian journal on cattle breeding) and as a result found insights everywhere.
“You become a super-encounterer, according to Dr. Erdelez, in part because you believe that you are one — it helps to assume that you possess special powers of perception, like an invisible set of antennas, that will lead you to clues.”[ii]
As I read Erdelez’s findings about how people engaged, or failed to engage, with unexpected sources of information, I wondered if these same categories held true for how we engage with one another:
- are some of us non-encounterers, that is, Do we tend to stick to the people we already know?
- are we occasional encounterers, willing to open ourselves every so often to what we might learn from unexpected persons?
- are we super-encounterers, aspiring to learn from all those we meet and therefore bringing greater attentiveness and reverence to them?
It begs the question: which category do you place yourself in, and which do you aspire to be? Regardless of where you currently find yourself, God needs us–and we need one another–to become super-encounterers.
Co-Creating A Culture of Encounter
Many Jewish mystics believe that in the beginning, God created and cast away many worlds before creating this one. These previous worlds broke apart as they could not bear the divine fullness, and the “holy sparks” fell into this world. These divine sparks now dwell within everyone and everything, imprisoned in shells, awaiting release and reunification with their Divine Source. Everyone and everything contains them. Yet, we cannot realize and release the divine sparks within us on our own. God needs each one of us to recognize and release this divine presence in one another in order for all of us to become what we were created to be.
God needs each of us to be like the visionary woman who was fully focused on the present moment, the ground where she stood, and the young man she met there. She looked beyond his appearance into the depths of his being. It is as if she possessed Superman’s heat vision and had the capacity to melt the shell casings in which his divine, distinctive sparks were imprisoned and in so doing, they were released: suddenly [he] was no longer a confused young man wondering whether every next step was the right one, he was a light-being with love built into his cells, leaning forward, poised to give.
Seeing the other’s secret beauty, their depths, the core of their reality
Almost sixty years ago, on March 18, 1958, at the street corner of Fourth and Walnut, in Louisville, another young man by the name of Thomas Merton had a brief but enduring encounter: “Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.”[iii]
The visionaries most needed in our age are those of us who are willing to take a long, loving look at those we encounter no matter where we live–be it New York City, Louisville, or Buford.[iv] In an age where more and more of us are gazing at our devices rather than at one another, let’s dare to believe that we, like the visionary woman whose name we’ll never know, can become super-encounterers. Let’s dare to believe that we too possess special powers of perception with the super-human capacity to behold the person that each one is in God’s eyes. Let’s dare to believe that if we look at each other closely enough, we will find glimpses of light-beings, love built into our cells, leaning forward, poised to give and when we do, God will be found right there in between us.
[ii] Pagan Kennedy, “How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity,” New York Times, January 2, 2016, accessed on May 5, 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/01/03/opinion/how-to-cultivate-the-art-of-serendipity.html.
[iii] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966).
[iv] Buford, Wyoming, currently the smallest town in the United States, population: 1.