Monday, July 1, 2013

People Are Good (Usually)

I've always felt that people are fundamentally good.  Any given person is more likely to help you than hurt you.  I love meeting new people, and chance encounters with strangers have turned into some of the most wonderful opportunities for me.  A good friend of mine disagrees.  She sees people more through the lens of the nightly news.

A recent weekend in Bend, Oregon illustrates both sides of the coin.  My girlfriend and I are walking to a local brewery on the kind of clear warm night you associate with summer.  A few blocks away a nice looking older gentlemen approaches, asking us which establishment we were headed too.  We answer Ten Barrel Brewing, and get a 30 second diatribe about why we should not go there in response.  And so our night with Paul began.

Paul was tall, wiry with a lot of nervous energy.  Jittery.  At first I thought he was drunk.  He informed us he had just been asked to leave Ten Barrel, for dumping a hamburger cooked not to his liking in the garbage.  He clutched a number of menus with handwritten scribbles all over them.  He also had an old digital camera and a notebook.

Paul quickly pulled a U-turn and walked with us to the bar.  I didn't mind the company, he seemed odd, but nice.  Paul spoke in rapid fire clips.  Pointing out his car.  Talking about beer.  Defending his ejection.  Paul rather forcefully suggested we go to Brother John's across the street.  Both places I heard were good, so we went.

We sat down, got our menus.  Moments later, in walks Paul, ejected again from across the street.  He joined our table and recommend some beers, and then announced he was paying.   The night had gotten odder, but there was free beer in the deal so I was game.  He asked me to look at his papers and handed me a stack of loose white notepaper.  It was filled with reviews of local bars.  He wanted to make a newsletter he said.  The conversation jumped around, loudly.  Others in the bar started to turn their heads.  The wait staff looked at me quizzically as they passed by, one eyebrow raised ready to offer support if needed.

Then his questions crossed into the uncomfortable.  Where are you staying?  I made up a place.  Where are you from?  I invented a new home town for us.  He then teared up talking about his long dead father.  Next he called the waiter over asked him to take his beer away, and asked if they had anything actually drinkable.  At this point I felt embarrassed to be sitting with him.  The waiter returned not with more beer, but to kick him out.

Was Paul dangerous?  Probably not.  He was probably lonely, and acting out for other reasons I won't understand.  Still, he made me uncomfortable and my girlfriend ten times more.  If the waiter hadn't kicked him out, I would have found some escape plan for my girlfriend and I.  I apologized to the waiter profusely and left him a generous tip for his troubles.

To contrast that, at the wedding we went to I was recognized by an old friend of my fathers.  I barely knew her, she even forgot my name and had to ask.  Still, she was delighted to see me and promised a spare room and boating trips if we ever came back.  She had no reason to do it, other than being generous to an acquaintance from long ago.

I do believe people are good.  And if your intentions are good, you will attract good people.  A random conversation with an old woman in the streets of Seville, Spain turned into a week stay in an apartment in downtown Paris once.  That same woman's family then flew to the United States to stay with mine, and my brother flew to Paris to stay with them.  All because I was willing to say "hi."  Of course, you need to be careful and use common since.  And always listen to your instincts.

But don't live life scared, you only live it once.  We pass by opportunities of all sorts because we are scared to put ourselves out there.  Saying "hi" to someone could change your life today.

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