Every separation is a rehearsal for death.
When you part with someone whom in all likelihood you will never see again, this is almost the same as him dying for you. You will never see him again and some day he will die – before or after you, it does not matter; he is mortal.
With this in mind, there are two stances we may take with respect to so-called “casual encounters.” The most common attitude is to consider the encounter insignificant. The unknown person who crosses our life’s-path and with whom we have a brief transient contact means nothing to us. Our meeting has no value and is devoid of any weight, for he will vanish from our life forever. This attitude may occasionally lead to utter indifference concerning the other person. We may view him as “irrelevant” to our lives – as irrelevant as he was a few minutes earlier when we had not known of his existence.
However, we may also take exactly the opposite stance. The fact of our common mortality, when meditated upon, may transform every passing encounter into something very special. Knowing that every separation is like a death transforms each encounter into something more meaningful, more fateful. Seen from this angle, death, contrary to common wisdom, does not separate us from one another, but brings us closer. By coloring everything with the hue of transience, death paradoxically enlivens each unique bond we make.
When I was traveling around the world, moving from place to place along a one-way travel trajectory, I knew that when I parted with someone with whom I had just interacted briefly, in all likelihood I would never again see him; that he would never again cross my life’s-path. Our relationship henceforth would be sealed forever by our mutual death. We would not exist for one another apart perhaps as images in our faint memories.
This unavoidable fact of life made me realize the uniqueness of every human contact as well as its fateful nature. Out of the seven billion people on the planet, you meet with this specific person who happened to cross your path only because of a billion random circumstances. Furthermore, this person is not just one of the seven billion on the planet today; he is one of trillions of people who came-to-be and will have passed-away in the history of humanity. It is not just the present that conspired so we would meet, but the whole of eternal Time! Had he or I been born fifty years earlier, the encounter would never have happened. All the events of my life led me to this unique person whom in ten minutes from now, after I board the plane, I will never meet again. Seeing the present and everything happening in it as being the end product of the whole history of the universe turns every encounter into something monumental. It makes it carry a significance that far outweighs the fleeting moment: Every contact with every fellow human becomes a unique, never-again-to-be-repeated event.
But the experience of the uniqueness of the encounter spreads still further to encompass the unique individuality of the encountered person. Every person ceases to be “just another” person crossing our life’s-path. We start seeing him as a unique creation in the cosmos – someone with a rare combination of qualities, characteristics, behaviors ,and ideas. The unique synthesis that is every person on earth begins to stand out, and the more we observe it and study it during our interaction with the person, the more of this uniqueness we experience. Every individual on earth is a unique character, a distinctive carrier of the world that reared him, a one-of-a-kind composite of all cultural and historical forces that acted upon him. It is amazing how unrepeatable and special each person on earth is.
I do not claim that these thoughts crossed my mind a hundred times a day each and every time I interacted with someone when I traveled around the world – or whenever I now travel! Life tends to lull us in its incessant rhythm, not allowing us to constantly be mindful of such important truths. Yet, once the seed of these ideas was planted in me, it somehow had an effect on the way I behaved towards others. I ceased to see the many people I came in contact with every day as a “means” to do something. When, say, I asked a passerby for directions, or a hotel receptionist for a particular information, I was not simply concentrating on the utilitarian nature of our interaction. I also saw these people as being the bearer of particular human qualities and a unique personality that transcended our transient encounter. Often, I would completely abandon the task on which our interaction was based in order to delve deeper into the person himself. From a joke or a clever remark, a weird question or a friendly smile, I would suddenly find myself conversing with the up till that moment unknown person in a most engaging fashion completely forgetting why we started talking. On the occasions when the interaction developed into a deeper human contact (or more rarely into a friendship), I experienced the monumentality of the encounter.
Allowing the idea of death to permeate our daily contacts in this positive manner, together with its corollary idea that each encounter is unique, fateful, and even monumental, transforms forever the way we interact with our fellow humans. Not only every encounter but also each person with whom we come in contact are henceforth experienced as being unique and special. This idea, but most importantly, this attitude and this practical change in the way we interact with others, finally becomes the template upon which the feeling of universal brotherhood may be built and then grow.