"Friendship in the Crowd" by Rebecca Willen (CatholicMom.com) Via Pixabay (2015), CC0 Public Domain

The fact that Earth's population totals about 7.125 billion freaks me out some days. If I start thinking about all the suffering, challenges, and pain that all of the people I actually know are dealing with, and extrapolate that to 7.125 billion, I start feeling relieved that I am not Professor X.

Take my office building. It's about 3/4 of a mile long from end to end, and contains Domino's Pizza international headquarters, enough University of Michigan medical offices to start another hospital, the local Catholic radio station and gift shop, and an art gallery. There are enough employees in the building to support a gym, restaurant, hair salon, post office, convenience store, and chapel.

On a normal day at lunch hour, one can easily feel lost among the people walking the halls. All those minds and hearts and souls . . . so many neighbors, and how on earth can I love them all without imploding?

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One at a time, perhaps.

At 4:45 p.m. every workday, I grab my purse and swing downstairs for the quarter-mile walk to the chapel. And every workday, a few paces along the corridor, I meet my friend.

He's a small, older Asian man, whose khaki uniform vest and blue shirt place him as part of the building's maintenance staff. We are both punctual. As I walk the building north to south, he walks south to north, and somewhere we pass. I can tell if I'm late by where I meet him.

At first, I kept my head down and didn't meet his eye. I have a bad habit of doing that. But as the days went on I observed the consistency of our meeting, and one day, I smiled a little shyly at him and ducked my head again.

I think he was the first to say "Hello." I responded with a smile and a nod and a greeting. It's progressed from there. One night recently, he was a little early and had almost disappeared into the maintenance room, but leaned around the corner to wave at me. So every night we smile and wave and greet each other. Actually I'm kind of excited because we just progressed to "How are you?" last week.

He sees me in all of my after-hours moods: my slump-shouldered get-me-out-of-here walk with the tight-lipped angsty face, my perky I'm-going-somewhere-fun-tonight walk with the all-is-right-with-the-world face, my muttering-a-Rosary-so-I-keep-my-place walk with the oh-my-gosh-I-have-to-stay-awake face. But he always walks with a steady, loose-shouldered stride, always a calm expression on his face. His smile is bright and cheerful.

How can I call him friend, when I don't even know his name? Maybe it's because we both light up a little when we see each other, and my heart is a little more cheerful afterwards. Maybe because he's a constant in my life, now, and I miss him on the days my schedule is different. In any case I pray for him, and for the family I'm sure he has somewhere. I wonder if he knows that he makes this working woman's day better.

I'll never be able to wrap my mind around the vastness of the human population and all its joys and sufferings. I may never even know my hallway friend's name or story. But I'm consoled in knowing that among the 7.125 billion brothers and sisters I have on this earth, I'm a little closer to one more.

Copyright 2017 Rebecca Willen