A couple of weeks ago, my children and I were visiting my brother and sister-in-law in Ohio. In the afternoon of our second day, my two daughters and I decided we would go for a walk. As we wandered the unfamiliar landscape we passed house after house with garages. One-car garages. Two-car garages. It may not seem like such a big deal, except that in our neighborhood, there are no garages. Everyone parks in their driveway or on the street. So these architectural appendages presented a strange sort of curiosity for my girls.
After a couple of blocks, my oldest daughter wondered aloud: “A lot of these houses have cars parked in the driveway just outside the garage. So why isn’t the car parked in the garage?” I began to list the possibilities for her: there could be another car in the garage. Or maybe a workshop. Or maybe storage. Could be a ping-pong table. But the bottom line is: we don’t know. We can guess what’s behind any of those doors, but when it comes right down to it, we have no idea. And chances are that if we made a guess, we’d be wrong.
The only way to really find out would be to ask. To go right up to the front door and say, “Listen, I’m very curious to know what’s in your garage.”
My daughter told me that would be a very odd thing to ask.
Yes. It would, I admitted. You would need to be friends with them first. They would need to trust you. They would have to invite you in. They’d need to know that you meant them no harm. That you didn’t aim to steal something you had no business touching. Your curiosity would need to be genuine. You might want to know if they needed help in their garage. Unpacking or sorting or cleaning out dark corners.
So, if you don’t know what’s in someone’s garage, how in the world can you know what’s in their heart?
We cannot approach the heart of another with brazen certainty. We can only approach them with genuine curiosity and perhaps even a compassionate desire to help. We may help them find something that is missing. We may help them uncover something they forgot was there.
I was recently listening to a talk by Thich Nhat Hanh in which he said that there is nothing more simple or mundane than a speck of dust. We think we know very well what a speck of dust is. It couldn’t be more obvious. But scientists can not really unravel what exactly is in a speck of dust. First, we cannot be sure upon observance where the dust came from. And even a speck of dust is constituted of atoms, protons, and electrons. In fact, the deeper you look into a speck of dust, the more mysterious it becomes. So, if we can’t truly know what a speck of dust is, how can we know a whole human being. There is something essentially mysterious, something essentially unknowable about everything we think we know.
I am not saying that you need to make friends with every person you meet and become their confidant. I do not think that we need to go peeking into the dark recesses of every human heart we encounter. Not every question requires an answer. Sometimes our curiosity can lead should lead us to the one very clear understanding of which we can be certain: We don’t really know.
You may think you know the heart of the person who cuts you off in traffic. The cashier who won’t make eye contact with you. The neighbor who yells at her children. The teacher who is overly critical of his students. You may think you know these people very well.
But do you know what’s in their garage?