It wasn't my preferred table to work at. It's situated between the entrance and the register of the coffee shop, which, at 9am, placed me in the middle of a human highway, people and baby strollers bumping into me as they came and went.
But I'm glad I was forced to sit there, because if I wasn't, I wouldn't have seen what I saw.
The morning began drearily, both literally and figuratively. It was raining outside, and shortly after waking up, I went online to read the election results and, inevitably, the comments that followed them.
It wasn't so much the outcome of the election that pulled me into melancholy. While I've learned to care about our political landscape and do what I can to contribute, I've also learned that no president nor political party can fulfill the messianic expectation often placed on them by their followers.
No, it was the comments that darkened my mood. It makes me sad to see the reactions that follow from votes placed not out of hope but out of fear, and the endless finger-pointing and scapegoating that makes "everyone else" the problem with the world.
So as I sat in the coffee shop, fading out of one mental landscape and entering into another (my workday), the door opened yet again, and in walked a middle-aged man, wearing a UPS uniform, pushing a cart stacked so high with boxes that he couldn't see in front of him.
His clothing, hat, and brow were damp, presumably from rain and sweat, and he slowly zig-zagged his cart through the crowd, finding a spot near my table to unload the boxes. He was focused on his mission, finding the best places to set the supplies, checking things off on his clipboard, and likely thinking about the next location he was to drive to. He didn't appear upset, but he wasn't particularly happy, either.
As the man got about two-thirds the way down the stack, a little golden lab puppy walked in. He looked about 3 months old, still young and round, yet past the stage where his little legs wobble on each step. As the puppy approached the register, and therefore approached the UPS man, he stopped right near me and looked up at the man. Round head, disk-shaped eyes taking in the world, a face displaying nothing short of pure contentment.
The man glanced down, saw the puppy looking up at him, and a smile spread across his face, followed by a twinkle in his eyes.
It wasn't the kind of smile you see someone make when they're supposed to smile, like during a photograph or when introducing themselves to someone. No, this was the kind of smile that takes over a person, washing away any hint of sadness or indifference that may have been there prior.
I don't know anything about the man, who he is, where he comes from, what his hopes are. I don't have any idea what his fondest memories are, nor how much of his life has been filled with light rather than darkness.
But what I do know is that no matter what burdens he carries, what dreams he's had dashed, and any wounds that have been inflicted on him, they all fled his heart as he locked eyes with that little dog gazing up at him. The smile that overtook him replaced a weary man with an individual who wouldn't have chosen anywhere else to be at that moment.
It was such a simple exchange to witness. There and gone in a moment. Ephemeral, like a wave on the sand. Deeply comforting to observe, even when given just a fleeting moment to take in.
How does a little golden puppy lab have an effect like that on a man?
I don't know the answer, but I have a guess.
I read an essay by Marilynne Robinson in which she pointed out that humanity is extraordinarily deficient in humanity. If anyone is honest with themselves, they know there's a great gulf between their best impulses and actual behavior. Between the thought and work they're capable of, and the thinking and working they let themselves get by with. Between what they know they should do, and what they actually do. Between their highest hopes of the good life, and the life that actually is.
She points out the terrain of freedom we find ourselves on that, while undoubtedly a gift, is nothing less than treacherous: the fact that we have the freedom to betray, to remain indifferent to the humans around us, to profit from others' misfortune, to be catastrophically wrong....these are perilous freedoms indeed. An emotionally fraught election is the least of the negative consequences of our freedom.
But the puppy in the coffee shop, he's not deficient in being a puppy.
He's being everything he was designed to be. There's no capacity within him failing to be expressed or integrated. He's just being a complete puppy, without even striving to make it happen.
When a person who can never quite actualize their potential, sees a thing that does, be it a puppy or a sunset, there is something beautiful that overcomes them.
To me, this speaks to the underlying nature of reality, that we were made for something so much greater, yet have fallen and can't make up that deficiency on our own. Even our highest, euphoric moments of success and accomplishment are quickly replaced by the haunting feeling of "Is that all there is?"
Puppies don't have that haunting sensation. At least I don't think they do. I've never spoken to one.
But I'm glad I saw this one. And I'm glad the UPS man did, too.