Sometimes, it’s the smallest of encounters that impact us the most. Seemingly insignificant at the time. It might be a look, a gesture, or even a single statement.
These interactions happen every day, and usually go unnoticed. Friends, family, co-workers, neighbours. Our interactions with them big and small teach us, guide us, and can turn our day around in a moment.
There are other times, when these tiny encounters feel like fate. This is often when they’re delivered by a stranger. Someone unknown to us. A person who appears to enter our lives to give us the tiniest piece of information and then exits. It might be the lesson that makes it memorable. Or that this micro-interaction might be the only interaction with this person. It stand alone in memory for that one thing – that one way they changed your life.
I had an encounter like this over a decade ago. A single line delivered to me by a stranger. Words that signalled a turning point. However the lesson these words taught me was not one I fully understood at the time. It took years to fully process.
Twelve years ago, I was alone on Christmas Day. Having just arrived back in Australia after a visit home to Canada. I had a place to stay before my job commenced in January. Yet on Christmas Day, I was completely alone in an unfamiliar city.
I have told this story so many times over the years. The story itself never changes – or at least the events. I was alone on Christmas Day. While walking the streets of this unfamiliar city I found a payphone (yes, it was that long ago!). Back home my family had gathered and were enjoying Christmas Eve together at my parents’ home. As the phone was passed around I could hear the sound of laughter and festivities in the background.
When it came time to hang up the phone, the ensuing silence was heartbreaking. I stood on the street in Ballarat, crying, alone. It was then I realized what the term ‘homesickness’ really meant. Not a feeling of wistfulness towards ones home. But the physical pain of true and profound loneliness. The sadness. It hurts, physically.
But I had a plan. I pulled the map I had collected from the tourist centre out of my pocket. The address I was heading for was clearly highlighted, and I’d marked my route to make sure I didn’t get lost.
The soup kitchen was only a short distance up the road. I was alone on Christmas Day, so I was going to volunteer! I was taking this as an opportunity to give back, to make a difference.
Taking a deep breath, I walked through the door.
The person who greeted me at the door smiled kindly. I blurted out `I’m here to volunteer!’. To which she replied ‘We have lots of volunteers here today…‘ my heart sank. I thought I was about to be turned away. I did not have a back up plan.
And then she continued ‘but people need to be here for different reasons. Why don’t you grab those plates and take a seat over there.’
People need to be here for different reasons.
People need to be here for different reasons. At the time I thought she was talking about the other people at the soup kitchen.
But she was talking about me.
The way this statement changed my life was a process that took over a decade to complete. What’s interesting is that I don’t actually remember what else I spoke to the person about. Or if I spoke to them again that day. I don’t remember what she looked like. There are times when I can’t clearly remember if the person was male or female. But what I do remember was that single line, and how it made me feel.
People come here for different reasons.
In the moment, that micro-interaction gave me permission to come in. To have a place to be on Christmas Day. To feel as though I was meant to be there. And I did help out, and enjoyed the hours I spent at the soup kitchen in Ballarat on Christmas day.
Over the years I have told that story many times. And over time, I began to notice how the story changed. Not the details of what happened. But how I told it changed. The focus of my story changed as my perspective changed. It was the place I was viewing the experience from that began to evolve.
This is because we always have the opportunity to change how we react to our own story. It doesn’t change the events, but it does change what we can learn from it.
It comes back to the micro-interaction.
People need to be here for different reasons. I needed to be there. To help. Volunteering was the cornerstone of my story. I needed to be needed. I needed to have a role. I needed to have purpose. I needed NOT to be the victim of my story. Not the girl standing alone on the street crying. Devastated getting off the phone with her parents on Christmas Day.
Somehow the person who greeted me at the door of the soup kitchen was able to see it, even if I was not able to. I didn’t need to be the victim, I needed to be the hero. And at the time, maybe it was true.
As I said, I have told this story many times. Written about it many times as well. The same story. But if you were to read how I wrote about it even just two years ago here, the message would be entirely different.
Back then, I needed to be needed. It made a difference for me to say I had spent Christmas alone and I volunteered. That’s what my story told the world. It wasn’t sad, it was heroic. It took me 12 years to get to a point where I was able to lean into what lay beneath.
It was shame.
People need to be here for different reasons.
Shame was keeping me from the vulnerability of speaking the truth. I was alone on Christmas and I had nowhere to go, so I went to a soup kitchen. It took vulnerability to be able to admit ‘I needed to go there because I had nowhere else to go’. Whether or not I did some dishes on that day didn’t matter.
I was ashamed that the soup kitchen didn’t need me, I needed it.
Because people come here for different reasons. I wanted my reason to be that the soup kitchen needed me. But the truth? I needed it. Knowing this truth and saying it out loud had finally freed me from this piece of my past. And for the first time in 12 years I took control of this experience.
Great lessons are ones that when learned can be applied across multiple areas of life. This is what I have learned from my micro-interaction and how I apply it today: