I’ve been thinking a lot lately about friends and enemies, ever since I had to drive through Chicago with my family. How do we tell who’s who and why do we bother?
I’ve been living in a small town for the last 20 years, so I wasn’t looking forward to driving through Chicago on our family trip. We hit the city just in time for a 2:00 p.m. bumper-to-bumper traffic jam. We inched forward for two hours when our car started acting funny. We pulled off the interstate at the nearest exit into the large parking lot of a strip mall—stores like Home Depot, T.J. Max, and HyVee along one side with a Starbucks and Napa Auto Parts out in the middle.
We were standing around stretching our legs as my husband checked under the hood, when a man came up and asked if we were having car trouble. He said he was a mechanic with a garage on the other side of the parking lot and we could come over for some help if we needed it. My husband and I turned on our cell phones and he went off with the mechanic and I went off to shop with my children.
I looked around as we crossed the parking lot and realized for the first time that we were the only white people in sight. Seriously, the only white people in sight. I consider myself a very open-minded, non-prejudiced person, but I remembered briefly that I was on the “south side of Chicago,” you know, LeRoy Brown and all. Wow, I thought, this must be what it’s like to come to my blond-haired, blue-eyed Norwegian-American town from another culture or with dark skin. I think of the place I live as very friendly and progressive, but I have not ever experienced it as a minority. There was no diversity here, absolutely everyone in this shopping mall looked different than me.
I, however, was lucky to have been deeply studying Bodhichitta, especially the four immeasurables of happiness, compassion, joy, and equanimity and the loving kindness practices that go with them. After my brief recognition of our different appearances, my heart opened and I could see that everyone there was a Buddha-to-be, just like me. We all wanted to be happy and free from suffering.
Honestly, I felt about as fully relaxed, but aware, as I think I’ve ever felt. I smiled at everyone we met and everyone smiled back at us. We wandered around the stores. We made a small scene when a store clerk accidentally gave us too much change and I insisted on giving it back. We chatted with the women signing up people to vote. They commiserated with our car trouble.
After a while we got bored and I figured out that my cell phone had no reception. We wandered over in the direction of the car garage to check on progress, but all we could find was the Napa Auto Parts. I went inside to inquire and was told there was no car repair garage around there. No garage, hmm. As I left the store slightly confused, another man assured me that my husband had gone to a different store with a mechanic to find the right part and would soon return.
I stood in the parking lot beginning to wonder about my situation (my husband and car had disappeared into the streets of Chicago with a stranger) when a plain-clothes police officer drove up, leaned out his window and said, “You’re not from around here, are you?” If I hadn’t been starting to worry, I would have burst out laughing. Instead, I breathed a small sign of relief (this person looked like me and I was beginning to remember again that I was on the south side of Chicago.) I explained my story. He told me that the men hanging around there were “alien mechanics”—freelance mechanics without a garage, who fixed cars in the parking lot. He said he didn’t want my children and I outside in this neighborhood and I should wait inside the Starbucks. He was going to check back in an hour and if my husband wasn’t there we would do something. He didn’t say what we’d do, but by then it didn’t matter, I had shifted from open equanimity to full-blown panic. The back of my mind was furiously reciting mantras as fast as it could and the front of my mind was envisioning every possible tragic scenario that my husband could be facing.
Meanwhile, my husband, who loves anything freelance, was having a grand time talking car parts with his new friend Derrick the “alien mechanic.” While I trembled in Starbucks, people continued to come up to me and ask if I was ok and if they could buy my children cookies.
My husband returned within a half an hour. Derrick fixed our car, despite the constant stream of regular costumers asking for service. He charged us a very reasonable price and sent us on our way. The police officer drove by after an hour and nodded from his car. I breathed in and out.
I also visualized the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas above the parking lot streaming down rays of love and kindness to every being there that day. I dedicated my love, and my panic, to all those kind people. It occurred to me that the only person there who really did me any harm, the only white person I saw all day, was the well-meaning police officer, who unknowingly helped me close the self-cherishing, self-grasping black cloud of fear tightly around my heart.
How quickly our friends can become our enemies and our enemies can become our friends. I could see, really, how silly it is to differentiate between the two and how difficult, really, not to. The equanimity I felt earlier in the day began to slowly return. I remembered myself, my family, the strangers who had become my friends, the people I hadn’t even noticed, and the plain-clothes police officer—all of us, just trying to be happy and free from suffering.