The Practice of Wondering

Friend, colleague, and See Me as a Person workshop facilitator, Dan Kopp, M.D., shares a recent experience of rapturous wonder. We are moved by this beautiful expression of deep curiosity about a fellow human being and think this post stands as an example of how, over time and with intention, one’s propensity for wonder can become second nature.

~ Mary and Michael

farmer hands (2)I first noticed his gnarled right hand as he slid into the seat across the aisle of the 737 to Seattle. Tall and thin, he appeared to be in his mid-eighties. Sparse white hair and a bushy gray mustache framed a gaunt face that held a somewhat confused expression. A short and stout fifty-something woman was already settled into the middle seat beside him. She was obviously his daughter by the bits of conversation I overheard. Their exchanges suggested he most likely suffered from some type of dementia. She reminded him to put the ticket stub for the jet-way-checked bag into his wallet so he wouldn’t lose it. As he stood to comply, he removed a dark, slightly stained tweed jacket, revealing a well-worn plaid long-sleeved shirt. He sported camouflaged suspenders over stooped shoulders that apparently helped a wide brown belt secure his faded jeans.

It was his hands, though, that were mesmerizing. There was all the evidence of the countless tasks I imagined they’d performed over eight decades. Though there was little meat in or around the long, slender fingers, prominent purple veins tented his thin skin. Nicotine had stained the tips of the first two fingers of that right hand, as it did the lower edge of his mustache, correlating with the pungent odor of tobacco clinging to his clothes.

The woman continued to attend and speak with him more as a grandchild than the man she called Dad. I further imagined how those hands might have held her a half century ago, soothing her when she cried. I suspected he was a farmer and had worked long and physically demanding years in his fields, though there were no certain clues for that. My hunch was he’d been a good provider for his family, but don’t ask me why. Perhaps it was the soft expression of love I saw in his daughter’s eyes as she held a cell phone at arm’s length announcing she wanted a “selfie” of just the two of them.

He seemed oddly curious at seeing their faces together on the device. She was obviously pleased to have captured the moment. I smiled when he then interrupted the young flight attendant on seat belt patrol. She seemed confused to observe him holding his right hand up in the air until he moved it back and forth. He apparently wanted to “high five” her, something he undoubtedly did often with his children and grandchildren over the years, and she finally graciously obliged.

I saw worry lines deepen on his daughter’s face and wondered if she was dreading this long flight to the northwest coast. I suspected she was considering how many times he might need to use the bathroom, or what he might say that could offend another passenger who didn’t understand how polite and appropriate he had always been before those hands grew gnarled. I continued to wonder about the many tasks they had performed. How often had they swung a hammer, guided a rip saw, or caressed his wife’s face? Had they aimed a rifle in combat? Was the slight tremble from some physical or emotional scar of war?

So many questions flooded over me as I now studied not only his hands but his brown and weathered face in profile. He smiled occasionally, but it never seemed to correlate with anything. I found myself deeply engrossed in this gentleman and really curious about his back-story. I wanted to hear some of his life experiences and understand his relationships with those about whom he cared.

Common decency, however, and respect for both him and his daughter prevented me from intruding more visibly. Later, in the airport, I saw them again, this time walking together quite slowly, hand-in-hand and seemingly lost in their own connection. Even slightly bent at the waist, he still towered over her as she clung tightly to his much larger hand. I thought from a distance it just might have looked as it did when she was seven.