While on my daily walk recently I thought of a very old man I would often see riding a really old bicycle. I passed this fellow often, when driving or walking, and would see him daily, pedaling for several miles throughout the neighbourhood. He was slight of build and wore what looked like work apparel; old slacks and a flannel shirt, both worn. He had an old satchel tied to the back bumper with bungee cords and it was heavily weathered, like the old man. He rode with determination and a stamina you wouldn’t expect from someone of such advanced years. I got the distinct impression this man wasn’t riding for the pleasure of it…he had to be 80 years old, if a day, and his heavily wrinkled face belied his youthful energy.
Sometimes, if he passed close to me I’d smile and say hello but he never answered, never smiled. In fact, he never acknowledged me at all so eventually I learned to ignore him, reluctantly, because despite his apparent unfriendliness, I cared about him. What was such an elderly man doing riding a bicycle such distances? He’d ride in all kinds of weather, up hills, long distances, alongside traffic – it was obvious this wasn’t a pleasure ride, and I couldn’t help but wonder what his story was.
On this particular day, the day I realized it had been several months since I’d last seen him, it occurred to me that he’d either retired from whatever it was he rode to and from each day, or he passed away. Either way he was out of my sight and I could only speculate on his life story. I had a feeling it wasn’t a happy one.
This brought me to thinking about others we encounter every day. The cashier at the grocery store, the school bus driver, the dentist, the housewife, the unruly teenager, the business man, they all have a story and no two are alike. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a glimpse of another’s life, just for comparison? Maybe we’d see a life filled with struggle and turmoil, a life story that would make us grateful of our own. On the other hand we might also glimpse a life of pleasure, one we deem more pleasurable than ours ….maybe it’s better not to know. Or maybe witnessing a life better than ours would motivate us to make changes or improvements to our story.
‘People watching’ is something we all do, most often unconsciously I suspect, and we also likely pass judgement on these individuals based on our first impressions . This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because our first impressions are generally drawn from instinct, intuition, and that gut feeling is generally accurate in reading the basis of a situation, but that’s where it ends. From there our imagination kicks in and our subconscious embellishes the situation to explain it or to make it more interesting.
I imagined that the old man was unhappy based solely on my first impression; that he kept to himself and didn’t smile or acknowledge me told me he was unhappy….he had to be. Wouldn’t a happy person smile and return a greeting? And would a happy person impose a physically taxing lifestyle on themselves at an elderly age if it wasn’t necessary? My logical mind says no but then who am I to define what is or isn’t logical? I created a life story for this man to make sense of my first impressions of him. I envisioned a hard and lonely life. I convinced myself he was pedaling to and from a job of labour where he made a meager living, hence the need to ride a bicycle. He had no family and invited no friendships. Life brought him little joy and he merely existed to fulfill the routine he had established to sustain himself until his time to pass would come. Pretty gruesome picture huh? But then in the absence of any details or explanations from the old man himself, I had to create a picture that justified my first impressions.
I also have to face the possibility that this fellow is an eccentric millionaire who lived the life of a pauper by choice, then retired to his island in the Caribbean.
Speculating on another’s story gives your imagination free reign. You can create whatever scenario you want to make their story interesting and you can justify anything in your life that doesn’t measure up, because you’re the author and this particular story will never be read by another. The only thing we need to remember is that while we’re watching others there’s someone watching us and it would be interesting to see what story they fashion for us based on their first impression.