Man with a pipe

On my way to work one morning, I spotted a man in a truck smoking from a pipe. It was one of those old-school, Sherlock-Holmes-type pipes. To me, that kind of pipe is a mark of sophistication. Yet, here was this man with that kind of pipe driving an old, beat-up green truck. The juxtaposition made me laugh, and the image stuck in my head — I thought it would be a funny anecdote to tell a few friends. Nothing more than that.

The next day, I noticed the man again, in the same spot, turning onto a street after having just left the highway. Same pipe. Same truck. It was as if the universe had just copied and pasted the moment from one day to the next.

I had driven the same route to work five times a week for four months and had never recognized any familiar vehicles or faces. But here was this man, with his truck and his pipe, in the exact same spot as I was for two consecutive days.

I felt a sense of kinship toward the man. It was an unusual feeling, I recognized that, because I didn’t know the man. Not his name. Not his profession. Not where he was driving on those two days. The only aspect of the man’s life I knew was that he was in the same spot as I was on two days in a row.

Of the 197 million square miles on earth and the 86,400 seconds in a day, I unexpectedly found myself at the same location at the same time as another person on two consecutive days. I won’t — and probably can’t — calculate the probability of that happening, but I’m going to take a shot in the dark and say it is quite small. Yet, it happened, and it felt comforting.

I thought about that for a long while — why seeing the man comforted me. Initially, I didn’t understand how a stranger could bring me comfort. Again, I didn’t even know the man’s name and I didn’t care to. I had no desire to get to know this man. It was just seeing him there, at the same time and place, just like me, made the world seem a little less lonely.

There I was — commuting to work, a task that can be both mind-numbing and lonely — and I found someone else presumably doing the same task. I wasn’t alone in the world.

Of course, I realize several people commute to work every day. A few dozen or so probably take close to the exact same route as I do. Still, sometimes it is hard to see the people around you, no matter how many there are or how close they are.

We get so busy going from point A to point B — doing all the meaningless tasks we have to do each day — that we become imprisoned in our own little worlds and we shut out everything else. Then, we wonder why we get lonely.

Our minds naturally look for the easiest solutions, and, when doing these everyday tasks, it is simply easier and more efficient to block out everything else than to make connections. The thing about easy is that it’s not always better. In fact, it’s often worse. That’s something many people already know, yet we are still so quick to take the easy way out, operate on the default mode.

So, it was easier for me to not make connections while commuting to and from work. It was more efficient for me to tune out everyone else and simply drive. But that led to loneliness. Moreover, it caused me to lose my connection to the universe. I felt as if I were operating on another plane, detached from the world around me. I self-isolated myself, and through that isolation, the universe became foggy for me.

I realized it wasn’t the man with the pipe for whom I felt a connection; it was with the universe. Seeing him simply snapped me out of my funk, lifted the veil off the universe, made me realize the universe is a heck of a lot bigger than just my car, my life. And I am connected to all of it.

There is a place for me in the universe. There is a place for you, too.

Many of us have a tendency to self-isolate. It’s us working on our default — the easy way out. What grounds us, what helps us regain our connection to the universe, is making connections with other humans. I believe it is these connections that help us understand ourselves and the world. They repel the fog that so often descends on our lives.

As for the man with the pipe, I never saw him again. It was just on those two days, a small fraction of my life. But look at the results.

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