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Why Can't I Be You?

It's Friday night and a dance party is underway. In New Rochelle. In the living room of a suburban split-level. Between an eight-year-old and her mom.

The playlist is a compromise: she gets some Jo-Jo Siwa and I'll get some Bowie or a little James Brown. On this particular night, we are listening to "Why Can't I Be You", an upbeat, dance-able love song by the Cure that doesn't take itself too seriously. The window shades are fully raised, which allows us to see our reflections in the glass and playfully mirror each other's moves. It also turns our front window into a well-lit stage, allowing anyone passing by our house to see exactly what we're doing. At one point, I notice that my across-the-street neighbor is watching us from her own front window, laughing and pumping her fists in the air. Then her teenage daughter and a friend get up and dance with us in unison.

At first my daughter is embarrassed and moves away from the window. But gradually she moves back, and begins to enjoy herself again. It's a moment of pure delight, one which I immediately realize is rarer than I would like these days. If we can't invite guests into our homes, at least we can invite our neighbors to a party of two from our front window.

I wonder what I might have concluded if I had seen that mother and daughter dancing. Pure fun? A light-hearted, carefree family? Would I have surmised that perhaps the fun was more intentional and less spontaneous than it appeared? That the act of dancing was in fact a stubborn insistence on eschewing the night's responsibilities and erasing the challenges of an otherwise difficult day? I wonder, too, what my neighbor and her daughter thought.

I take long walks around my neighborhood these days with my family, and often see the same people. Walking the same dogs. The same smiles and pleasantries exchanged each time. I see that neighbor across the street walking alone - perhaps a decade ahead of me in age, kids mostly grown - and I reflexively experience a pang of envy for her easy solitude. A couple weeks ago, a similar feeling overtook me for a brief moment when I encountered a colleague hiking by herself along a trail that I was passing with my kids in tow, a bottomless backpack filled with snacks, and chatter all around. I see the lone walker and covet the silence that surrounds her.

But what about those who are alone all the time these days? What about those young and single professionals who have returned to the city after months with their families, and now sit in an empty apartment each day while they work? What about the elderly living alone who can no longer meet their friends for lunch? I wonder if they see young families or couples and envy the noise and daily distractions that surround them.

At the very beginning of this pandemic, I found myself oscillating wildly between a headstrong insistence on gratitude for all that I wasn't losing (a job, a home, a loved one) to a small-minded and petty envy of those who looked as though they had it "easier" during the day-to-day (no young kids at home, no teams of teachers, aides and therapists to contend with regularly). I concluded early on - almost immediately, in fact - that on the spectrum of life circumstances ranging from unbearable to fortunate, I was unquestionably positioned closer to the fortunate side.

When that uncomfortable feeling arises, even if it is short-lived, I decided to look upon it not with embarrassment for my own self-indulgence but rather with inquisitiveness. The things we think we see in others and wish for ourselves ("easy solitude" for example) are often simply the things we need the most in that moment. When we allow feelings of comparison to linger, we sacrifice the opportunity to go out and seek the experience that will likely bring us the relief we really need. (Spoiler: I now intentionally carve out more time alone; it's not that hard).

More importantly, when we find ourselves comparing our lives to others, now more than ever we must operate according to the new cardinal rule of this pandemic: assume you know nothing about anyone. And check-in often - whether it be at work, on Zoom calls with your co-workers, or during dinner with your kids. Ask questions. Remind yourself that someone who seemed okay yesterday may not be okay today. Inquire in lieu of comparing. Comparison is not only the thief of joy, as Teddy Roosevelt once famously said, but it is also the killer of human connection. Feel it, learn from it, and then do away with it.

Fortunately, I do know some things about my neighbor across the street. I know a bit about her family situation and her children and grandchildren. I know that she is a teacher. I don't know, however, what she struggles with when no one is looking. And when I see her next, I will ask how she is. The next time I see her walking alone, I will also remind myself of another thing I know about her: that when she sees her neighbors dancing in the window, she dances back. And though each of us may be wrestling with our own private challenges on any given day, we discovered that we can enjoy a five minute respite of joy together, even when we're separated by a road, a house, a window, a life.

Adapted from LinkedIn Article found here.


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