I was sitting near the South Portland Mall’s interior entrance to Sears a few days ago. Approaching was a woman pushing a wheelchair in which sat an elderly woman, perhaps her mother or an aged friend.

Heartwarmingly, my eyes rested on that tiny parade of humanity, while my thoughts strayed toward a mindfulness of the charity we owe one another.

As this small pageant drew abreast of where I was sitting, the younger woman turned toward me, gifting me with an unguarded smile.

Taken in by this woman’s recognition of me, I nodded while my lips formed a silent greeting.

Such exchanges of intimacy are not uncommon.

Life is a relational bazaar. Our encounters when uncorrupted by self-concern or unworthy motive sometimes bring us into a land of mutual giving where we are known as fellow travelers.

I am not persuaded that every attentive act should engender weighty reflections on our part.

Nevertheless, faced with another being thoughtfully attentive to us as a person may effect in us a feeling of belonging, bringing catharsis.

A stranger gives us an unguarded smile and we know that we are known as a separate being in all our fullness. It is a pleasing thing to be the recipient of another’s act of recognition.

Recognition! Perhaps it is what all of us want, though we have been unable to say it.

There is an inner level of self that wishes to be seen and known, desiring to be the subject of the innocent attention of another.

We seek fulfillment through recognition. Perhaps it is the deepest of all human longing. Soon or late what we realize is that each is a divine manuscript upon which God messages his love for the other.

Jesus taught that we are to commit ourselves to the fiction of “Neighbor = Me.”

Imaginatively, we are to practice seeing ourselves as the other every time we look at another, to see the other as a person and not a thing – a you and not an it.

As we can be encumbered with too much self, it may require practicing an emerging from the self if the body is to become the holy homeland of God’s love.

Annie Dillard in her book “For the Time Being” remembers words spoken by French paleontologist, priest and mystic Teilhard de Chardin: “By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers.”

On every side we are assailed by God’s infinite speech, whether it resounds from the fiery layers upon layers of swirling galaxies at the borders of the universe, or comes to us from the heart of our neighbor. Without our say-so, we are being steeped in the wonder and absurdity of creation.

Our anonymity and our loneliness are banished when we are recognized, remembered and acknowledged by the friendly presence of another.

Apart from the gifts others bring to us – their smiles and hugs, their assurances and affirmations, their wish-you-well words – we are incomplete beings.

Dostoyevsky long ago wrote of “the plague of self-sufficiency.” It’s not possible to live off the spare nutrients of our self-satisfactions. We are enriched and fortified by the attentiveness of others.

The best thing we can offer another is a humble, waiting patience coupled with a certain passivity that allows the other to be present as a vital and separate human being.

Recognition reveals itself sometimes in a look, a smile, an intonation or a handshake.

Being the recipient of an unguarded smile in a public place was to know myself as known apart from my reputation.

Recognition of another is among the greatest and most charitable of gifts!

The Rev. Merle G. Steva is Minister of Visitation Emeritus at First Parish Church, Saco, Maine.

He may be contacted at [email protected]


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