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Starting Point

Human uncertainty on the mountain


This year I went to the top of Cadillac Mountain. Compared to the 14,000-foot peaks in the American West, it seems more like a hill, but the guidebooks call it the highest point on the Northeastern coast, one that offers a panoramic view of Frenchman and Blue Hill bays. It also is eminently accessible, the summit being no more than a hundred paces from the parking lot along a paved walkway.

It was a bright, clear day with little wind, and early enough in the season that the place was not crowded. Scrambling over the pink granite surface of the mountain, or staying obediently on the path were passengers from one tour bus and perhaps a dozen families, including children and dogs.

I took a circular route to the top, noticing the other people but not interacting with them. But when I got to the highest point, my attention went to a woman who was sitting about 20 feet from me on a knee-high wall, alone. She appeared to be in her 30s and had a cane beside her. I couldn’t identify her disability, but her slightly hunched posture reminded me of that of some of my friends and clients with multiple sclerosis. I could not read her face, but it looked as though she were shrinking, willing that no one speak to her or notice her.

Others milled about her, looking at maps, pointing out distant islands, taking photos of their children. But no one related to her; no one seemed to belong to her; no one looked at her. I had an eerie fantasy that she was invisible to everyone but me. In fact, when she looked into my eyes it seemed that she was surprised that I could see her. It seemed she was begging me not to give her away, not to speak to her. Or maybe she was asking me to speak, to free her from her isolation, to acknowledge her presence, to bring her into the human family. I looked away, and back, and away, and she was doing the same.

I come to such places, alone, to think my own thoughts, having, as Thoreau called it, “some private business to conduct.” I rarely speak to strangers, beyond the simple courtesies. I dispense polite smiles but usually not words.

Now, suddenly, this woman’s presence had thrown me into confusion. Not knowing her story, unable to read her body language, I tried to guess what she wanted, tried to imagine what I or my friends would want in a similar circumstance -- to be included or left alone? In spite of all my relationships with people with disabilities and visible differences, was I being caught in an attitude of prejudice, either avoiding or pitying the “other?” Was I failing to give her equal respect by not ignoring her to the same extent that I was ignoring everyone else?

I wish that I could say that I made a brave and intelligent choice that day, that I found the perfect balance between kindness and intrusion. I wish I could tell you that I walked across the space between me and that enigmatic woman, that I greeted her appropriately and shared a human moment, however brief. I wish I could report that I overcame my shyness, my uncertainty, my fear of embarrassing her or experiencing rejection myself.

But in fact, I did nothing. I was paralyzed by my inability to interpret the situation, to know what was needed. So I simply abdicated, took refuge in my restlessness, went to my car and drove away.

But here in this small failure, this episode of social cluelessness, lies also the mystery of life in God. For grace can make up for our uncertainties and our wrong guesses. Most likely, what I did and did not do that day was of no great consequence in the woman’s life, and there is a fifty-fifty chance that not speaking to her was in fact the more loving action. But I think of her and pray for her, simply because I did see her, because we were for a very short time occupying the same geographic location, the same moment in time, and meeting one another with our eyes.

I pray for all of us as we fumble our way through life, most of us with good intentions and insufficient data. I thank God for the times we are able to act, to connect, to ease another’s burden. And I give thanks, as well, for the times we simply do not know what to do, or we fail to act, because I believe that God is greater than our own frail and timid hearts and our limited capacities for understanding. Salvation, our own and that of others, does not depend solely on us. God only requires that we show up in our lives every day, make the best choices we can, be as brave as possible, and then trust him to cover and carry the rest. There will be mountains, large and small, and men and women on them who will show us how diverse and interconnected we are, and will remind us of just how little we can really see, even when the view extends for miles wherever we turn.

Mary Vineyard is a message therapist who lives in Lubec, Maine.

National Catholic Reporter, September 20, 2002 [corrected 09/27/2002]