He was sorting through a wall rack of Phoenix Suns T-shirts, obviously not finding the size he was looking for. He had his back to me when I asked, “Can I help you?”
Still focused on the shirts he answered, “Do you have this in a Small?”
That voice. I’ve heard it before. But not in a very long time. And where? My brain started flipping through the mental file cabinet, trying to match the voice with a name. In less than 15 seconds it came up with the answer. I happened to have a small toy hockey stick in my hand and before I could check myself, I lightly whacked him on the shoulder.
He spun around, surprised by my aggressive approach to customer service. He looked confused and stared at my name badge until he made the connection.
We had gone to high school together. I hadn’t seen or spoken with him in 25 years.
We exchanged the customary “what have you been up to?” questions, trying to quickly sum up two decades in less than five minutes. Turns out he had a great job as general manager of a large business in the valley. We talked for a bit, then he went back to watch the game and I went back to work.
This brief meeting got me thinking about a couple things. First, how amazing it is that my brain was able to make a positive ID on a voice I hadn’t heard in 25 years. Second, and more importantly, how much we as human beings can change over time. Were I to ask him, I think Ron would agree that no one would have ever accused him of taking high school too seriously. I remember him as one quick to laugh and always joking around. He liked to drive his cars fast and hard and somewhere there’s a couple transmissions in a junkyard that will attest to that. I don’t remember ever seeing Ron study, though I’m sure he did. At least once in awhile.
25 years later the guy who shook my hand had worked his way up and earned the title of the guy in charge, responsible for many employees. I sure wouldn’t have expected that. But that would be my shortsightedness, not Ron’s.
If asked the question, “What’s happened to you in the last 25 years?” we would each be able to relate a series of decisions and circumstances, events both anticipated and unexpected. Surprises that run the gamut. We could talk about how we aren’t where we expected to be. Maybe we chose the road on purpose or maybe life ran us into the ditch and we ended up on the other side; shaken up and scratched up and on a different path that, good or bad, is what it is. We’d talk of stepping forward and falling backward. At the end of our story would stand a truth so obvious it wouldn’t need mentioning.
The truth that we aren’t the same person we were 25 years ago.
We all have a tendency to freeze people in our mind. We remember them the way they were, like faces in a school yearbook, not allowing them the same grace we extend to ourselves. That being the grace of growth and change. Class clowns sometimes grow into responsible adults with a great sense of humor. Wallflowers sometimes bloom into effervescent, winsome personalities. Reckless risk takers sometimes become conservative, measured businessmen who trade their RPM gauges and double pumper carburetors for Morningstar reports and stock charts.
All of us are frozen in time in someone’s mind. They may remember us as a nice person. They may remember us as a mean person. They may remember us as a good friend. Or as one who hurt them.
We can’t do anything to melt the memory they have of us. All we can do is be the best person we can be going forward. If it’s inevitable that we’ll be frozen in someone’s memory, much better to be remembered as a kind person who cared.
We’ve all grown. We’ve all changed. Bumping into Ron reminded me that I need to extend the grace of growth and change to those I remember. Even if I never see them again. Because God is at work in all of us, whether we realize it or acknowledge it.
Next time you think about someone from long ago and ask, “I wonder how so and so is doing?”, add one more question.
“I wonder if they’ve changed as much as I have?”
Even in your memories.
Todd A. Thompson – May 1, 2006