Several of us were already working out when he walked into the gym. He looked out of place – his clothes, his posture, his demeanor. I was on a treadmill toward the back of the room. I know I was surprised to see him, and then I noticed how others were responding.
It made me sad to see the glances and stares others gave him – sad for him but also sorry for the times I know I’ve looked at people in similar ways. He got on a treadmill and began to slowly walk. But at least he was walking! I began to think about all the people who might not come to the gym because they’re embarrassed. They don’t have the body they want, the clothes they think they should have, the strength and ability they long for. But they are in process. Isn’t that why most people are at the gym?
And the gym isn’t the only place we expect a certain “type” of people to be and are surprised when someone outside our expectations shows up. Think about how we stereotype professions, ages, genders, or religions.
About an hour after the man showed up, everyone but him and me had left the cardio room. Another man walked through and paused, scanning the room and pondering (I assume) whether he should leave me alone with the new man on the treadmill. I smiled to reassure him. He reluctantly left, looking over his shoulder a couple times.
As I left a bit later, I made sure to make eye contact with the man, and he seemed surprised. I told him to have a good night, hoping perhaps a friendly face would help him feel welcome to return. Over the following days and weeks, if I was there at the same time as he was, I tried to exchange a few words, and I learned a bit about him. He still looks out of place and a bit uncomfortable, but he smiles and his face lights up when he sees a few of us. He has found a place to belong even if others or himself don’t think he fits in well.
Just because we don’t feel as if we fit in doesn’t mean we don’t. Just because we think others don’t fit in doesn’t mean they don’t.
Be friendly. You never know the burden someone carries.