About seven years ago, on my daily commute, I passed a woman from my neighborhood walking her dog. As our paths crossed on the sidewalk, I smiled and said, "hello." She glared at me and said nothing. I figured that she was just having a bad day, and let it pass—until the next day, when the same thing happened. I smiled and said hello. She glared at me and said nothing.
Shocked and a little miffed by her obvious lack of common courtesy, I carried that glare and the self-righteousness it inspired within me most of the day. Although I didn't necessarily expect a response, glaring at me for saying hello seemed downright rude.
The next morning, having benefited from some quiet reflection and a good's night sleep, I thought that perhaps my greeting disturbed her morning solitude. After all, I'm an introvert who can appreciate Sartre's oft-quoted maxim, "hell is other people at breakfast"—or "greeting me during my morning walk," as the case may be, so when we passed, I said nothing.
She glared at me. Again. I was surprised.
Somehow in the midst of being offended, it occurred to me that even she was the answer to someone's prayer. In that instant, this obvious truth I had somehow overlooked took root in my heart and changed my experience. I decided that I was just going to be me and say hello, and she could be however she was, and that was ok.
And it was. Every day on the way to work, I smiled and said hello. She said nothing and glared at me, and I didn't mind. It simply was what it was. Then one day, almost two years later, she smiled and said, "hello." And I felt the way water surrounding a block of ice must feel when the ice melts, the joy of mutual recognition.
Later, I learned that I looked to her a lot like all the people who had ever disrespected her. Yet, in the face of my consistent, respectful "hellos," she couldn't sustain her contempt for me. One day, quite despite herself, she surprised us both, welcoming me with a smiling hello.
On those occasions when I find myself responding uncharitably to others, it helps me to remember that every person is both a prayer and the answer to someone's prayers—sometimes the answer to the prayers of many. I try to remember to be curious and respectful of every prayer I meet.
I try to discover whose prayers we're answering. I seek to understand the sacrifice and the offering each of us makes in the midst of our struggles that makes it all worthwhile. I take comfort in the knowledge that we do have within us the ability to find the holy ground where all prayers meet.
What would the world be like if we consistently treated ourselves and each other as if we were prayers, namaste writ large for East and West, North and South alike? Yes, prayers can be in conflict. We bomb each other in the name of our Divinity, a case of tragically mistaken I-dentity, reducing Spirit and our best interests to the realm of mine. We frequently want more at another's expense even when we have more than enough. We see monsters in broad daylight and refuse to wake up, hiding under the covers of adulthood without the innocence of childhood to excuse our cowardice.
The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.
But it seems to me that even when we disagree, we can respect each other as sacred. We can find the love in the madness, the spark of heaven in the flames of hell. We can respect the sincerity with which a prayer is uttered, even when its content offends our own sense of truth and goodness. We can embrace the pain and suffering in the face of hate. In seeking to find whatever it is we can value about another, however small, we nurture the soil from which all goodness grows.
After all, I suspect that in our heart of hearts, every word we utter is a prayer—for meaning, for learning, for belonging, for home. Thus, every exchange, no matter how trying, is an opportunity to experience the sacred in ourselves and in others. When we truly experience each other as prayers, even ones that we may not understand or like, we recognize each other as sacred even in the midst of discord.
As we recognize each other in this way, the sacred sets the tone for our subsequent interaction, breathing openness, compassion, and movement into that which is contracted, cold, and stuck. We hold our own and each other's experience more compassionately, and we instantly begin to engage with each other more graciously. We open ourselves to the meaning, the learning, the belonging and the home that is ours if we choose it. We become the answers to all of our prayers, resting in the sacred ground where all prayers meet and humanity takes flight.