On my way to work there is a stoplight that used to stay green for ten or so seconds after the “stop walking” hand finished blinking. This week something changed, and now the light turns yellow immediately after the hand is done flashing. The first time I went to the intersection after the change I almost walked into the middle of the street on a red light, because I was so used to being on autopilot going through that space.
Since encountering the change I’ve noticed that my quality of attention is quite different at that intersection. I watch. I look more at the cars and the people walking by. I pay attention to the new rhythms of the street. The space feels unfamiliar in a slight, nagging way. I am there in a sense that I most normally am not when encountering that corner.
I say this to point out how we can become so used to the physical and social dimensions of our neighborhoods without even realizing it. What we’re accustomed to goes far beyond the timing of traffic lights. Perhaps we’re used to the homeless men and women hanging out on certain street corners where there’s a liquor shop. Or maybe we’re used to seeing a long row of trees down the sidewalk when we round the corner on our home block. We might be physically passing some of the same people everyday as we move through the dance of our lives.
What are we missing by getting used to the common encounters and interactions of our daily routines? I think we lose a little bit of our humanity when we turn on the autopilot. I think we forget what it really means societally, structurally, economically when we see a homeless person who has to take a crap on the street because he has no where to go to have some dignity. We forget to think about how lucky we are to live on a street with greenery to clean the air and improve our mood.
One of the most insidious challenges of dealing with our own privilege is remembering that we have it — and we are all privileged in some way. It takes a conscious effort to bring our minds back to the present from where they have wandered off to. We have a lot to gain by really living in our bodies and settling into the awareness of what we bring to our immediate environment. Perhaps being present is one small step that we can all take toward unifying our increasingly diverse communities.