It was early in the morning and I was on my way to Brooklyn. I was pushing my way through the crowd at Penn Station, a steady stream of people buzzing with purpose and places to be. Despite the many different directions we all seemed to be moving, to stop and watch from some empty corner would show a surprising seamlessness to it all, as if it’s something we rehearsed the night before.  

But I was too busy to notice. I was standing on the bustling platform waiting for the train. The mid-July air was thick and heavy and I craned my neck to check for the flash of incoming lights from the tunnel: nothing. I shifted my weight from side to side, trying to ease the rising tension in my head and shoulders from the heavy bag I was carrying. The usual: laptop, phone, chargers, lunch for later, wallet, keys, lip balm.

“I can’t believe how heavy this bag is,” I thought to myself sulkily, attempting to pinch my shoulder back to life under the strained strap.

The train, finally, sounded and echoed in the tunnel, rattled and roared before us, and before it had even come to a complete stop, I knew I would likely be waiting for the next one to come by. I could see the people packed in from every angle, holding awkwardly to anything nearby all while attempting not to touch the person next to them, which from anyone else’s viewpoint at any other time could probably have been seen as humorous.

But not today. I checked my phone anxiously for the time, quickly (and probably incorrectly) calculated my arrival window if another train showed up in the next ten minutes, which was predicted but not exactly likely.

And that’s when I saw him.

A man, or half of a man, hunched over in a wheelchair that appeared to be visibly crumbling beneath him, attempting to propel himself onto the subway car while the doors kept repeatedly closing on his chair. His legs hung limply and when my eye ventured to see how he was moving himself forward, I was stunned to see that this man was also missing both of his arms. With two paralyzed legs and no arms with which to turn his chair’s wheels, I could see that he was gathering all of his strength from his shoulders, trying to move the unmovable in a way that seemed impossible. And no one inside the car, or on the platform, tried to help him. In fact, I didn’t even see anyone else even seeing him as I stood there unable to look away.

I should be clear, I didn’t help him either. And every time I think about that moment, I honestly wish I could be there again just to give him a gentle push onto the A train, to get wherever it was he needed to go. But I didn’t. And eventually he gave up and slowly drifted elsewhere. In less than a minute I could no longer see him in the swelling crowd, everyone standing above him, anxious to catch the next train that came by.

I spent the rest of that morning in a haze of questions: How did that happen to him? Was he born that way? Was he in a horrible accident? Did he have someone in his life to take care of him? Did he have no one?

I truly don’t believe you should find your sense of gratitude for your life by comparison. I don’t think we should rely on the phrase “It could be worse” to make ourselves feel better about what we’re going through. (Mostly, because I don’t think that has ever worked.) But what this man presented me with on that muggy summer morning is perspective. Instantaneous, blinding clarity that my problems (at least the ones I was grumbling about on the station platform that morning) were not actual problems. They were my blessings, my luck, if you believe in that sort of thing. My supposed burdens were expensive electronics and gadgets and of my own choosing. The factors of my morning that I begrudged are the ones that led me to a job that I have AND like, if you can swallow that. My morning commute and all that came with it was the beauty of my life and I was missing it all because of a preoccupation to complain, to feel inconvenienced, to find something wrong with everything. If you asked a lot of people, I have a good life. Not a perfect life, of course, and I encounter real problems to face like anyone else. But the sight of this man visibly struggling just minutes after my own trail of negative thinking made me feel embarrassed, ashamed of myself in a way I never have before. Because really, there’s no reason things are the way they are, right? For all the people you pass by every day, for every piece of their story that you will never know, who’s to say what gave them the certain destiny that they carry with them? Who gets to choose? Sure, there are decisions you can make that will lead you to certain circumstances, but I’m talking about the fateful stuff, like whether or not you were born into royalty or with nothing at all, not even the use of your legs.

That man, wherever he is, will probably never know what he taught me that day. I haven’t completely reformed or given up on mindless complaining, and I often say or think things that I wish I could take back. But he reminded me, in that moment, and in others since, that what we have is precious and fleeting and, many times, unearned. Because no matter how lucky or unlucky we seem, it can all change tomorrow, or right now before our very eyes. This might be the only moment we have. So what are we doing?

Is there beauty in a longwinded, crowded, sweaty commute? In the common traffic jam? In the moments we can choose to stay or go? Even in our deepest sadness? I think so. Maybe not in a way that is obvious or easy. And maybe not always. But for the sake of loving the minute you’re in, the air you breathe in and breathe out, for the heart and soul of those who are teaching us humility and will never know it, try to find it. Whenever my shoulders ache and I’m lucky enough to feel it, I’ll know that somewhere out in the hub of New York City is a man using his own just to move forward, to get along, one inch at a time.

Further reading:

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Helen Williams is the Community Love Director at Holstee. She is passionate about cooking and writing which pair well together on her vegetarian food blog, green girl eats. She's strives, every day, to be less sorry.

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Every month we select at few writers to help us explore what it means to live a life of reflection and intention. Reach out to Helen, our editor at Helen.W@holstee.com to learn more

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