The Man on the Subway*
Updated: Feb 19
Here is a test. This is only a test. If this were a true emergency, you would need to put down the phone and dial 9-1-1. Wait a minute...
This is a story I read once years ago that I’m going to re-tell to you as if it were happening to you to see what you make of it. Here we go:
This story is set on a subway in Manhattan. On a hot summer day. Which means an even hotter subway platform with the occasional waft of rotting garbage, stale alcohol and vomit. You’re in clean, sharp summer clothes on the way to a meeting of importance. You’ve been waiting ten minutes in the heat and the stench. Long enough to break a sweat and feel your patience slipping.
The train finally arrives. and you get on with great relief that the air conditioning in the subway car is working. As you sit down, you notice a man who also got on that same subway car, at the same time that you did, but at the other end.
It’s actually hard to ignore this man because he has three kids with him — three boys, about ages 8, 12 and 14 — who seem his polar opposite. He is almost completely checked out, eyes unfocused, looking at nothing, while his kids are shoving each other and hitting each other and yelling at each other at regular intervals. As the father sits down in the only available seat and the subway pulls away from the platform, the kids start roaming the car.
The father does nothing as the kids scatter. One kicks his backpack around the floor. The other opens the doors at the end of the subway car and watches the next car jostle and jerk. The third rips open his backpack and tears out its contents in sudden haste to find something in the bag. And the father does nothing.
This continues for a good long subway minute. It is unpleasant. Uncomfortable. Wearisome. Even for people well-practiced at ignoring strange behavior, this is unsettling. You, and everyone in the car, are starting to fidget and grumble and steam.
So, here’s the question: What do you think of this man and his kids? What are the conclusions you’ve come to so far? If you’re honest with yourself, what are you thinking?
For most people in this situation, and indeed for most of the people in the subway car that day, there’s a sincere wish that this man and his children would just all magically disappear. A general thought that, “And I have to deal with this today, too??” An irresponsible, neglectful father A disrespectful citizen. And his annoying children who have no sense of public decorum. Here’s a place for a zero tolerance policy! And that’s where most people were. Except one.
A young girl also about age 12 happens to be seated near where the one boy was frantically searching through his pack. Luckily, she too had no sense of public decorum so she asked the boy, “Are you looking for something?” And slowly it came to light that, yes, he was looking for something. A letter that his mother had given him. Earlier this morning. In the hospital. Before she passed away.
And with that bit of information, the entire population of that Southbound N subway car took a step back. As you probably are doing too. As I too did when I first read this story.
What changed? With that little piece of information, we all suddenly have more room for this family. More compassion and understanding. If I told you now what the kids did next, it wouldn’t annoy you anymore. You would keep your bigger perspective and choose — even if unconsciously — not to become upset, judgmental, or impatient. No one would be able to convince you to get off balance again.
Having passed the above test, the next test I have for you is this: what if you decided to have this level of balance and understanding at every moment, in every interaction, for every person?
You can see from the story that it is a matter of deciding. In the story, it was information about the context that opened your perspective. What if you didn’t need the context or the story to be able to be in that place of balance and understanding? What if you just chose it as a regular way of being: Balanced. Patient. Understanding.
What if you treated everyone as if they had just gone through this level of trauma and needed help — even if they couldn’t ask for it. We know nothing of the real situation everyone else is in the middle of, only this small snapshot of what we see. We don’t know anyone else’s history, circumstances or mindset.
This would mean you have to let go of all the stories — whether you judge them as positive or negative — and just accept that this is what is happening. And that there’s a good reason for it that you might not ever know. It’s not personal. It’s not about you. And your best response to it is to keep yourself in balance and harmony throughout.
Try it out for a day. Or an hour. Or even five minutes.
You will find this changes and grounds your entire life.
*originally printed in the Redding Sentinel, Redding, CT, in October 2022.