The Parable of the Stinky Shoe
This story was related to me by Master Wu. Although Master Wu no longer presides over a classroom, and the students have since left the confines of the academy, I like to think this lesson has stayed with them as they make their way in the world.
Master Wu! Master Wu! Tell us the story of Betty and Ann.
Yes, yes, we want to hear it!
Very well. As you know, in their final year at the academy senior students make a city trip to observe and report back to the class what they find. One year I had two most promising students, Betty and Ann, who each went on their trips at the same time. Here is what they reported about their experiences.
It was a beautiful spring day, the air crisp, the sun shining, a cloudless blue sky. As I stepped off the bus, my first impression was the smell, which lingers with me still. So many vehicles, so much exhaust. Underlying that, a sense of dust and gentle decay, blowing on the warm breezes that wafted up from the subway vents. Those sensations were followed immediately by the noise! Honking taxis, vendors shouting, background music droning.
And then there were the people. Here at the academy, our world consists of dozens. In those first few moments I spent looking around me, I saw thousands of fellow travelers! It was all I could do to move out of the way of the teeming crowd to a spot against the wall where I could just watch.
I think I would never tire of watching humanity's flow stream by my eyes. So many variations on the basic human model. Tall and short, fat and thin, long locks or bald. Pressed suit or shorts and t-shirt. Piercings, tattoos, makeup. For all our seeming desire to find somewhere to fit in, people spend a lot of time trying to stand out.
But that day I had a mission, a mission to explore. I could not stay leaning against the wall of the bus terminal. I turned to the right and set my sights on downtown. I would walk the length of the city and look out over the water to the horizon. I soon learned that navigation was easy: long blocks run East and West, and short blocks run North and South, all numbered consecutively for easy reference.
As I lost my fear of getting lost, I found myself taking in my surroundings. Office buildings, storefronts, small city parks. Here a corner deli, there a hidden garden ensconced in the atrium between two skyscrapers. I observed two types of fellow walkers: the person busy on their way to the office, head down with determined stride, versus those like me out to experience the day. These had their heads up, swiveling around to soak up countless impressions, lingering frequently by something that caught their gaze.
It was nearing lunchtime. I suddenly noticed I was ravenous, and that some of the intersections were speckled with food trucks. Delightful smells emanated, and I could not help but waft over myself to sample what was on offer. Hot dogs, pretzels, bagels, and muffins. Quick and easy, but surprisingly tasty! Is there anything better than walking in a strange city with comfort food in hand, being fully present in the moment?
What surprised me most of all in this city of wonders were the reactions of the people. Knowing its reputation, I was nervous how the city dwellers would respond to another bumbling tourist. But lo! My smile was met by smiles. Perhaps it was just the glorious day. But I even trusted myself to say hello, at least to the people who were dawdling a bit like myself. And I was rewarded with smiles, waves, and greetings in return.
This feeling of being an integral part of teeming humanity stayed with me all the way down the city streets to the water. When I realized my stomach was optimistic in how much I could eat, I handed over my surplus purchases to what I took to be homeless people. At least they were looking for donations and seemed happy to take my in-kind contributions. A hearty "Bless you!" made me feel blessed at my good fortune.
Upon reaching the waterfront, I succumbed to my desire to just sit and watch. A convenient bench, a happy hour, and I felt content. By then my feet felt sore, so I resolved to take the subway uptown. A new adventure, down into the working bowels of the machine. I struggled with the ticket machine – too many options for me to make sense of – but the ticket booth was open. I got some friendly answers and a cheap, one-way ticket and was soon on my way.
The swaying, rocking subway car threatened to lull me to sleep with its motion. I stayed awake, keen to track our progress from station to station. It seems I was on the local train, not the express, but I did not mind. So many people. Where were they all going? Lots of faces buried in books and phone screens, but not all. Here and there a shy glance, reassuring ourselves that we were still part of the same humanity.
All too soon, I was back at the bus terminal, waiting for my ride back to the academy. I couldn't wait to share my wonderful experience with you all.
Funny you should mention the smell. When I stepped off the bus, it was directly into a pile of steaming dog poo. Ugh, how disgusting! I couldn't believe my trip was starting off with something so foul. I stumbled over to the curb and tried to scrape off the worst of the stinking mess.
As I stood there taking in the ruin of my shoe – oh no, there was even some on my socks! – I was jostled by hurried commuters while taxis and buses belched exhaust into my shocked face. I tell you I was tempted to get right back on the bus and flee home to the quiet peace of the academy.
No matter. I resolved to make my exploration of this busy city to provide an accurate report. A warning is more like it! Everywhere I went, people looked at me with suspicion. It seemed every face bore a scowl. When I stopped to get my bearings or take in a sight, I was inevitable bumped by a harried pedestrian. More than once people yelled at me "Watch where you're going, moron!" even though they were the ones who hit me.
I eventually tired of the struggle and wandered into a bodega to get some sustenance. I could scarcely believe my eyes. The prices! I realized my meager allowance would cover only a water and a sandwich. I was evaluating my options when I noticed the owner staring at me venomously. What was wrong? Then I realized it was the stink from my shoe. Other customers were shying away from me. I was so embarrassed I fled without buying anything.
I saw a food truck nearby and went over to wait in a long line. This time my odious footwear served to my advantage, for the line thinned in front of me as people got a whiff of me. I needn't have hurried, for all that awaited me was a watery hot dog on a stale bun. Beggars can't be choosers, so I took what was on offer. Halfway through, I was already done. The homeless people all around with their hands out spoiled my appetite. I threw out what remained of my sorry dog and trudged onward.
I think if I never see another scowling city face, I will die happy. Who needs them, with their pretensions and their important jobs? They live in filth and noise, crowded together like animals, and tell themselves they have it good.
I finally made it to the dilapidated harbor, piers rotting into the polluted water. Spotting a subway sign, I resolved to make my escape. Feeling like I was descending into the bowels of hell, I made my way down the steps to the antechamber to buy a ticket. Half the machines were broken, and the ones that were working might as well have been in hieroglyphics. I ended up buying a day ticket by mistake, but by then I was so desperate to get home I would have paid anything.
Into a crowded subway car, filled with people who looked like they would rather have been anywhere else. At least I made it onto the express train. But no, here came a troop of annoying rap dancers who insisted on performing before their captive audience and panhandling as if their show was worth a thing.
The fumes from my shoe were giving me a headache, and it was all I could do to return the death stare I had been seeing all day. Finally, I was back at the bus terminal. I couldn't wait to get out of the place.
Master Wu: I'm so sorry to hear of your difficult day, Ann. Why do you think your experience was so terrible?
Ann: It's obvious. You sent me to the worst city, and I had the miserable luck of stepping in dog poo just as I was getting started. Everywhere I went, I felt marked, and people responded to me with hostility.
Master Wu: Would you be surprised to hear you went to the same city as Betty? Not only that. Betty told me that she also stepped in dog poo as she got off the bus.
Betty: It's true, I did. That really was disgusting.
Ann: But what did you do?
Betty: I took a moment and washed off my shoe in the bus terminal. I wasn't going to have that experience color the rest of my day. I resolved to put it behind me and carry on. After all, I am so much more than the sum of what happens to me. How I respond to what happens each day determines what kind of day I will have. And my days taken together determine what kind of life I will have.
Master Wu: Be well.
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