Unknown Woman, c. 1990
Back in the The Bonfire of the Vanities days, I worked at a money management firm. My boss was the managing director of marketing. I was a lowly assistant vice president. I got paid a fortune, but in my mind the real reason I was paid so extravagantly was that I had to put up with my boss. She was the type of person who, in the middle of a meeting would turn and say, "The problem with you, Julia, is..." She was not a pleasant person to be around. I quickly learned that my raison d'etre in the office had nothing to do with my clients, and everything to do with advancing her career. After an incident in which I'd forgotten a minor detail for a conference call she told me angrily, "Your performance is above and beyond anything I could expect 99% of the time. It's the other 1% that I can't stand!"
I arrived in the office each day at about 7:30am, often leaving twelve or more hours later. It was a time of stress and confusion; my self-confidence grew shaky, and I was more aggravated than I'd ever thought possible. One gray winter day at lunchtime I discovered a dark, neo-Gothic church tucked into an odd corner of midtown, and I took to retreating there daily to sit in mute agitation, letting frustration wisp its way out of my soul like incense. At the time I wasn't sure if I believed in God, but I pleaded with him for sanity, anyway.
One morning I got on the subway early, and found that the train was unusually crowded. I stood sleepily, swaying in the multitude, when the car suddenly jerked and I lost my balance. My feet shifted instinctively, and I heard a scream; my 2" heel had landed on the arch of the woman next to me.
Everyone in the car froze. This was New York, after all, and everyone watched to see what the woman would do next: would there be a fight? an argument? danger? I apologized profusely. There was a pause.
Blinking back tears, the woman looked at me and stammered in a lovely British accent, "Well... I suppose... I suppose that... if this is the worst thing that happens to me today, it will be a good one!"
I was in awe.
I'd never had my foot skewered by a high heel, and I never would have looked at the situation that way if I'd been the victim. This woman introduced to me a revolutionary idea: put inconveniences and frustrations and temporary aggravations into the bigger picture of what really constitutes a problem. Look at things from a different perspective. Flip the situation around until you find a positive way to handle it.
I don't remember the color of the woman's eyes, what she was wearing, or the length of her hair. I'm certain she doesn't remember a thing about me. But in one simple sentence she changed my life.
Life is like that: the little points of light that illuminate our path often come from others who are completely unaware of the gift they've given us. If you think back on the things people have said to you that have shaped who you are -- for good or for ill -- I'd be willing to bet that the vast majority of those people wouldn't recall the conversation. What a curious thing!