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How Saying “I Love You” to Strangers on the Bus Can Change Your Life

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Woman riding the bus

By Heather Box

If you’re feeling bad about people, try taking a city bus and, one by one, look at everyone for a few seconds. While looking at them, whisper ever so quietly under your breath, “I love you.” Try to see if you can actually feel it.

I’m a little grossed out by the seventy-something man sitting across from me on the 14R bus racing up Mission Street because I think I can tell that he has really bad breath. He’s too far to smell, but there’s white stuff on the edge of his mouth, and he keeps doing weird things with his tongue.

The lady behind me seems mean, like she would yell at her kid who accidentally dropped a glass of milk on the way to the breakfast table. She seems like someone who would make them go to school without breakfast for being “so careless.” She seems really mad. She was rude to the driver, and she looks like someone who really doesn’t want you to make eye contact with them.

The young guy next to me reminds me of my cousin’s friend’s ex-boyfriend who, at an art show a couple of years ago, tried to convince me that the Earth was flat and that being gay was a disease. The guy next to me is reading something that makes me think he has similar beliefs. I want to roll my eyes. I want to think I’m way smarter than him.

But then I remember the trick that got me through my morning commutes on the Fulton 5 bus through San Francisco for many years. I whisper as quietly as I possibly can, “I love you.” And I just do it over and over again for the whole ride. They may have terrible breath, or are really mean to their kids, or believe in something foolish, but when I whisper “I love you” to them, my feeling of love becomes a little more true. Try it.

We spend so much of our lives hating other people or pitying them, or rolling our eyes at them. And we spend so much of our lives hiding who we truly are, saying the opposite of what we mean, and bending over backward to be liked.

Imagine what would happen if we opened our hearts, face, stomach, chest, eyes, and every part of us to every other soul we are on the planet with? If we stood before them with nothing less to say than “I love you,” wholly and completely. What if we did that even to people that scared us? That we disliked? That we think are stupid? Do our lives get better or worse?

Being able to say it to myself first was the key to being able to dole out the love-whisper. There’s something that happens when you realize the crusty mouth guy and you are sort of the same. Start with the crusty mouth guy and go around the whole bus. Yeah, you also have bad breath, you’re also mean to your kids sometimes, and you also believe stuff that is just flat out wrong. You make mistakes that feel unforgivable sometimes. Or maybe you just lie. Or get too drunk. Are occasionally WAY too uptight. Maybe you pulled the trigger. Didn’t ask permission. Perhaps you’re always talking shit. Or blaming everything on other people.

No matter what, you’re the one that gets the biggest “I love you” whisper from you. Whether you’re mid-blackout–again–or you gained back the forty pounds you worked really hard to get rid of, or someone tells you every day you’re disgusting and unlovable, or you just generally feel like none of your breaths really matter, you get to whisper “I love you, I love you, I love you,” over and over and over again to yourself until you start to feel it. And sometimes saying it under your breath to other people on the bus can help you feel it for yourself. It feels bad to sit on the bus and be disgusted by someone else. It feels bad to think they are so dumb or mean or ugly. It’s so low risk to just whisper I love you to them instead and see what happens.

So the next time you’re on the bus and you are focusing on how dirty someone’s finger nails are or cringing at the way the poor guy is clearing his throat, just do us all a favor and try out your I love you whisper. Let’s see if you can feel it, even if it’s just a little tiny bit.

Heather Box is a writer, activist, and trainer who works in partnership with change makers around the globe to support their campaigns, grow their networks, and share their stories.

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