It had been a usual day in the mundane contact sport called "life in New York": battling to get a seat on the bus to Port Authority, streaming with the other drones into the maw of the subway (a hell-mouth if there ever was one), shaken-around by the arthritic and uneven train-tracks of the A-line running north, harnessing myself to once again walk into the chaos of my workspace. As I went through my obligations, I "Oh Poor Michael'd" myself, nurturing an untoxic but sticky self-pity.
I had just arrived on the street that leads to my office when a little old lady on a ten-spot, drop-handled touring bike slowly eased past me, her seat set so low that her knees churned high like the two piston arms on a paddlewheeler. A cane, aluminum, tipped by grey rubber, dangled off the left handlebar. Her back was S'd by scoliosis and pitched forward by osteoporosis, and a thatch of white hair riffled like a reed tuft in a breeze.
I stopped short and watched her with a mixture of compassion and astonishment, as if someone had slapped me in the face and said, "Shape up!"; and my self-pity dissolved in an instant. Not because I felt the smug reassurance of "There but for the grace of God go I." No, I can only describe what happened as my heart cracking open: an immediate, right-between-the-eyes respect for how much energy this human being was expending in keeping her own heart intact as she made her inexorable way.
Living is a tough business; to paraphrase what Betty Davis said about old age, life is not for sissies. And because living can produce so much struggle and dismay, we often wear a thick hide of self-mastery and "Oh poor me" around our hearts for both medicine and barricade, especially when daily evidence reiterates how easily we can lose everything in a flash of fire or clash of armies. But as the paraplegic cartoonist John Callahan says, self-pity is like wetting your pants: at first it's comfortably warm, and then it turns very cold. The old lady on the ten-speed reminded me how cold and unearned my self-pity was, how important it is to make the struggle even if I didn't immediately understand why I should or where I will end up.
But her image did not just say, in some grim puritanical tone, to suffer adversity because it will improve the character. When my heart cracked at seeing her, I also had to smile at the pure "Yes" of her paddlewheeling down the street. Against age, against rusting knees, against pedestrian traffic, she steamed home. Certainly I, with mobile knees and half her age, could do the same. I worked hard converting the rest of the day into light and patience.