By Tim Porteus

A COMBINATION of ill health, a current inability to walk without knee pain and dark winter nights have conspired recently to keep me in the house and away from the joys of exploring my favourite places in nature.

I have not been housebound, but I have had a taste of the feeling of being so. It is a scary premonition.

“You’re just getting old,” was a recent diagnosis from a family member! It was said with affection, of course, yet the ring of truth gave it an unhelpful sting. Age, of course, is just a number and state of mind and I have much to keep me youthful.

What did help was meeting up with an old friend last week. As we sat together sharing memories of our youth and the shenanigans we got up to 35 years ago, I had a disorientating sense of time. It seemed impossible that so many years had passed since the moments we remembered had taken place. Those moments were so present for us. As another cliché says, it was as if it was yesterday.

We both complimented each other on how young we looked but I think this was because we both saw the younger person underneath the wrapping made by time. Society judges so much by appearance, we all do. But when we meet an old friend, even when we have not been in touch for many years, we see the person we knew, even if the exterior has changed. As the philosopher Henry David Thoreau once said: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

Who can say honestly they have not judged someone because of what they look like? I am as guilty as anyone else. As I said, we all do it; on the bus, in the queue at the supermarket while we wait our turn, everywhere. We glimpse at people, avoiding eye contact, but making immediate judgement on the way they look. Sometimes it’s negative, sometimes envious, sometimes positive and admiring but always superficial. And I know, like everyone else, I too am likewise judged.

It’s a human habit, perhaps a primeval instinct in which we must quickly judge people for our safety. But of course outward appearance gives no clue to someone’s character and real qualities. We must know something of that person first before we can judge on that.

And this means seeing beyond what we look at. And to do this we need eye contact, a smile, a friendly gesture and the exchange of some words. We need to connect to the person inside. And the irony is, while there are more of us than ever sharing ever-bigger spaces, we are ever more disconnected from each other.

The truth I’ve come to realise is that you don’t have to be an old friend with someone to see their inner self, you just need to see beyond what appears to you. We have another primeval instinct and that is to detect the warmth of a character. But we cannot do that if we only see what we look at and make no attempt to connect.

My resolution, even before New Year, is to do this more often. To smile, say some friendly words and not judge or assume things. I think we actually all need more of this, with people we don’t know as much as those we do.

As someone once said, a stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet. Well maybe you have, but you just haven’t spoken to them or really seen them for who they are.