(And why their perspective matters)
Human behavior has always fascinated me.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been curious about what makes people do what they do and why they respond in certain ways to various circumstances and situations.
It was such a keen interest when I was younger that I briefly considered majoring in psychology or sociology in college, though I changed majors 5 times in 4 years of undergrad, so I’m not sure where I would have squeezed it in…which is probably why I ultimately became a theologian instead.
But I continue to be captivated by observing people, and maybe more specifically how they conduct themselves in public.
When I took up bicycling this spring as a way both to combat the tedium of pandemic lockdown and to improve my personal health (who knew boredom was the key to motivation?!), I started riding a popular municipal hiking/biking trail in the town adjacent to where I live two or three days a week.
The path is about 5 miles long from end to end and is paved and well-maintained along its entire course. Part of it runs through a busy city park and is contiguous to a section that parallels an active retail and restaurant district, so there’s always a lot of traffic in that stretch.
And as I’ve now logged several dozen hours on that trail over the course of the past six months, I’ve begun to notice that there are some very specific types of behaviors people display…and I think those behaviors may have some implications for where we find ourselves as a society.
1. The “I’m just happy to be here”
Most of the folks I encounter are happy, polite, and seem to be enthusiastic to be in nature enjoying the fresh air. They’re often out with family and friends, and in general a kind word or two is reciprocated as you pass them by.
These are the people who will thank you for warning them when you come up from behind them to pass and will give you plenty of room to get around them.
Many of these types are taking their time, either walking or riding with a gentle pace and a carefree attitude, stopping frequently to observe the flora or enjoy a sit on one of the many shaded benches overlooking the two rivers along which the trail meanders.
Most of them are locals, and you begin to recognize one another as you spend more time on the trail and exchange first perfunctory, then increasingly friendly greetings.
I love being around “I’m just happy to be here” people. They seem to be living for the moment, something I wish I could do more of. They’re the kinds of folks who keep moving forward no matter what life throws at them with a generous and grateful attitude.
2. The determined
Because the trail is mostly flat in a town dominated by hills, a lot of people use it for fitness…whether biking, running, or power walking.
These folks are out for a purpose, and they are focused. You may get a nod or a wave as you pass by, but they’re not out for social interaction. There are miles to be logged and a pace to be kept, and in many cases probably a limited window of time in which to get a workout done.
Most of the time, I would probably count myself in this group, except for the fact that I do know a lot of people in town and my extrovert nature is to stop at least for a minute or two to chat.
Determined people inspire me. They’re the ones who keep up the protests, who refuse to accept lies and half-truths, who know there’s something better ahead for those who don’t give up the fight.
3. The absorbed
Because they are activities you can easily do alone, walking and bicycling can be a good way to spend some time inside your own head. So you come across quite a few loners on the trail, generally walking with their heads down, looking at their feet, not making eye contact and barely acknowledging your presence, if at all.
They’re usually wearing headphones, often have their hands in their pockets, and move at a slow and deliberate pace.
Absorbed folks are not exactly rude, just indifferent. You can generally tell by their body language that there’s something on their mind, and they’re trying to work it out.
The absorbed are the people who, for any number of reasons, are so focused on their own stuff that it’s hard for them to see beyond it. The ones who are either too broken or too tired to do anything but survive.
But they’re out there. Sometimes you can tell they’re brooding over something. But sometimes you can see hope.
When I encounter the absorbed, I try to give them plenty of space. I sense that they need it.
4. The clueless
Some people just have no idea where they are in the world and seem oblivious to the fact that there are other people sharing the space and air around them.
These are the folks that are always startled when you warn them from behind that you’re about to pass. I mean ALWAYS.
Clueless people often travel in pairs or packs and seem to have no idea what to do if a biker or runner needs to pass by them. They’ll either split to both sides of the path, leaving you even less room to get by, or they’ll huddle off to one side, stopping completely as if they are incapable of continuing on their way until they once again have the entire trail to themselves.
The clueless simply have no concept of shared responsibility. They assume that they are the center of the universe, that their wants and needs supersede all others, and that other people only matter insomuch as they can fulfill some desire.
Everyone else is more or less an inconvenience.
They are by far the most dangerous people in society. You never know what they’re going to do, but you can bet on the fact that they’ll get in your way to do it.
We all have perspectives
Of course, these are all very gross generalizations and admittedly are probably painting with too broad a brush.
After all, these are actual people I’m talking about. Complicated, nuanced, conflicted human beings with whole life narratives about which I know not a thing.
But I think there’s something to be learned in my very non-clinical observations along the bike path.
We all have perspectives.
Whether we’re just happy to be here, determined, absorbed, or clueless, our point of view informs our experience of reality.
It informs our experience of each other.
So be kind.
Even to the clueless.