I tend to categorize people in my mind. I don’t do it purposefully. But it’s like there’s an abstract filing system in my head. When somebody looks or acts like someone else I already know, I subconsciously drop their files into the same folder. As I child, I used to wonder if God used a finite number of basic molds or punches that he made us all from. He made me from the short and scrawny mold, and then added a little variety with curly hair and an overactive imagination. I feel that it’s rare to meet someone who is truly unique, somebody for whom I have to start a brand new folder. I don’t make new folders very often, and they hardly ever last long with just one file. I understand that it is a narrow way of looking at things, but everyone sees the world through his own filter.
Traveling, of course, expands my filing system. People look and act differently in different parts of the world. Big surprise. Still, there are usually things that you can cling to in foreign cultures that are familiar to us. There is a Starbucks in the Singapore airport. Germans play foosball. Hungarians stand in nice, orderly lines. India wasn’t like that for me. There was hardly anything that reminded me of home. Men hold hands when they walk together. Their heads wobble back and forth like bobble-head dolls when they are saying yes. They drink Thums Up cola. I’m still not sure which side of they road is the correct side to drive on.
Exactly a year ago, I was visiting India for the second time. We were conducting free medical clinics in a rural area, mostly for eyes. That second trip, we saw roughly 5,000 patients in 5 days. I was 1 of 3 pre-screeners, meaning that I personally checked in about 1,650 people. After the second or third day, I was surprised to start noticing patterns in the people that came to the clinic. I sat down that night and described the new folders that I had begun to sort those people into. The list wasn’t comprehensive, even for the small sub-group of rural dwelling people who had an eye complaint. I’m sure that you’d meet an entirely different set of people in a different part of India, or even if you took a sample of the people who lived in one of the cities nearby. So yes, the title isn’t accurate, but that’s just the filter that I saw things through. Anyway, the following is a slightly edited excerpt from my journal.
After another day of clinic, people have arranged themselves into different groups for me. There are less than 10 people in India. There are the old men in tucked-up skirts and unbuttoned white shirts. Their hair is wild, they walk with bamboo staves, and slouch in their chairs. Their behavior is like that of a man drunk. Slovenly, punctuated by comical seriousness when they think that seriousness is required of them.
There is a middle-aged version of this man, with thin black hair on top of his head. His skirt is usually a dark color and let to hang down to the floor. He is a tailor, or a truck driver. His face is anxious and he keeps his arms in close to his body.
The children are all either six or sixteen. The younger ones can be dirty, or very clean. They have big, clear eyes and seem nervous to look into my face. They never smile during the examination, but never stop smiling at any other time.
The teenagers distinguish themselves into boys and girls. The girls are pretty, well groomed, and bashful in my presence. Their hair is braided and their clothes look brand new with bright, beautiful colors. The boys are all small for their age. They are more bold, and may try to impress me with a few words of English. But they are usually unbathed, and their shirts look faded and worn.
There is a small group of women of about 25 years of age. They seem unconscious of the world around them, distracted by other thoughts. But they answer my questions succinctly and move to the next phase quickly.
The older women are between 40 and 50. Their needs are more urgent. They keep their saris well wrapped and neat. Rings on their toes indicate that they are married. Not one of them looks the age written on her card, always seeming younger or older. After this phase of life, they must experience a rapid decline into the group of the 80 to 90 year old women.
These old ladies will pull open their eyes for me to look into. Tickets and other items are tucked against their skin in the wraps of their saris, and I shutter at the thought of collecting those tickets at the end of the day. They walk hunched over, often with a stick. When I grasp an arm to assist or lead one of them, the softness of that hanging skin is almost startling. At the end of my interview, they seem surprised that they have a new place to go, a new line to wait in.
The last person is the dignitary. Man or woman, they are the same. He or she will express authority through a uniform or especially fancy clothing. They also try to show off with a word or two of well-pronounced English. Many times, they will not wait in line, but come directly through the door to stand before me. Sometimes I send them back, but usually they are escorted by one of the church servants to show that our host wishes them to be seen immediately. I treat them as I do all the others, but sometimes I can’t resist the urge to shine my bright light into their eyes just a little bit longer than is necessary.
These people come to me repeatedly. I have talked to each one hundreds of times, and with little variation. I struggle to think of the person before me as an individual. It is always the same person I have seen already, living the same life, having the same face, the same needs.
God, I know, does not see them this way. He knows each distinct heart and loves every man and woman for who they really are. He reaches out to them, just as he reached out to me so many years ago.