Behind the Thin Wall

Between two neighbours, there’s only a wall of 20 centimeters dividing the life of two families apart. The latest technology might even provide us with an even thinner wall, which still provides strength and isolation needed to divide two houses.

With such a fine line between two lives, I realize we don’t know anything about the life of our neighbours. Other than the things they did tell us about them, their age, occupation, numbers of family members, their place of origin, and a little bit this and that about themselves – we hardly know anything about them!

Being someone who stays at home a lot, I’m always mesmerized by the amount of people I meet whenever I have to go out to the city centre. We used to live in Maastricht, a small and old historical city in the South of the Netherlands, a place of knights and fairies, with old buildings, old bridges, and old forts and castles. Even the roads and pedestrians are made from cobblestone from hundreds years ago. Beautiful as it is, Maastricht has a much lower population to the city we live now in. Often filled with tourists from local to international ones, but it is basically a quiet city.

The day I visited Utrecht with my husband to check the prospect of moving here, I was so surprised with the many people walking and passing by in the Central Train Station. Every single one walked so fast, we needed to adjust with the pace, otherwise we’re lost in this race of humankind. I never thought I would be shocked by this, as I came from a very big and busy city as well prior to my moving to the Netherlands.

As I watched these people passing by, I realized I didn’t know one single person from these many humans in front of me. Of course, whom I wanted to fool, I was a newcomer in the town. But then, almost 9 years later, I still almost never bump into an acquaintance of mine. What a wonder! So many people live in this same city where I live, and I don’t know anyone.

What are their stories? What is his story, the man with a suit and a leather bag in his hand? What is her story, the woman who holds two babies? What are their stories, the couple who kiss before the train’s door?

Does he have cancer? Is she happy? Do they love each other? Is she satisfied with her life? Is he single? Did he finish school? Does he have a hard life? Is he rich? Are they a new couple? Are they fighting?

Passing the houses as I do my daily stroll leaves me with the same curiosities. I love to peek inside the Dutch house. They have neat tidy houses, with large open windows, and some are bare without any curtains. Clean and empty floor, beautiful vases on the tables, and a man or a woman sitting on the couch reading books or watching television. Are they happy? Does he feel lonely? Is he busy?

I happen to know the older lady just beside me is living alone on her own. Divorced with two adult children who swore to never enter their mother’s house ever again. Working mostly late shifts in the hospital in order to make more money to earn enough money supporting her solo life. Alone and lonely, bitter and angry, she hates every sound coming from our family and changes her face into stone every time I greet her when we pass with each other. The last time I talked to her she told me she was facing depression and was waiting for her first appointment to meet a doctor about it. That was around my 2nd surgery, around 4 years ago. And from that point she refused even to acknowledge my greetings.

In these 4 years we don’t talk to each other, I wonder what has happened in her life. Does she get better? Did she get help? Does she become happier? I guess not, seeing that she still refused talking to me, the last time she talked to me was the time she scolded me because my backyard was full of weeds, and she accused that our weeds flied to her garden and made hers full of them. Errr, she could be right, if we don’t live just beside the woods. Anyway, who brought the weeds to my house then? Fairies? I was busy surviving surgeries, and she complained that my backyard was dirty?

It’s hard to digest her logic, and no, our backyard was not dirty. There are some wild flowers and weeds, but far from dirty. Unfortunately it was still far from her standard as well. And yes, biting my tears through her fiery comments, I’m sure she’s still far from being happy. But still, I don’t know much about her. What does she eat tonight? Did she make peace with her family? Does she sleep well at night?

Thinking about it, we actually don’t know many things about many people around us. Our parents who now live far from us – we might call them once in a while to say hello, exchanging news and pictures via whatsapp, but further than that, we don’t know every single struggle inside their heads. Our siblings who now live with their own family, our friends, colleagues and relatives…

With the advance of technologies we’re allowed to take a peek into their lives. The Instagram Stories, Facebook statuses and pictures, even their blogs. But still, once in a while we’d be taken aback by some pictures: what, he’s already graduated? Who’s that in his pictures, where is the wife I used to see? Wow, she has 3 children now! Oh dear, he passed away. Was he sick? Why does he post so many pictures now? Why does he speak nonsense? Is he ok?

The ‘new things’ that happen to our friends, our acquaintances, those things were not new for them. They live those things daily. But we don’t talk to them everyday and missed many details, and one update of Facebook status left us speechless.

I often regret this upon seeing such things. Why didn’t I know? Why didn’t I know she’s struggling? Why didn’t I know she was sick? Why didn’t I see it? Why did I never make a call? Why did I never reach her? Why did I never pray?

We live among so many, and yet we live all alone in our very own bubble. We stay together and yet we don’t know each other’s struggle. Sometimes I just assume that everyone is happy, healthier than me, problem free. But once in a while, when I pause myself and try to look deeper, I might find one full of miseries. The ones who smile in pictures but hide their struggle neatly behind their happy faces. The one who is perhaps too bitter until she doesn’t know how to smile anymore.

Pondering about this, I realize that everyone has their own shares of happiness and struggles. We don’t know it all, we can’t know it all. But before we make a full assumption that one is happy, one is lucky, one is heartless, one is barbarous… We have to remember that one word is never enough to describe one person. One word is never enough to explain their stories. Just like us, every one might have their miserable days and secret histories.

We don’t know it all. Be kind, reach out and pray.

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