A few months ago, I was coming out of a Rite-Aid in a shopping center and was about to get in my car when a man approached me. He had an elaborate story: he was in town from Indiana, came for a job interview, the job turned out to be "bogus," he and his kids were staying at a motel around the corner and they hadn't eaten in a few days because he didn't have any money and didn't have enough money to get gas to leave Ohio and go back to Indiana and they didn't have anywhere to go, and could I spare some money for food for him and his kids? I gave him the two dollars I had in my pocket. Do I believe he had starving kids at the hotel around the corner? Not for a minute. Do I think he came here from Indiana for a job that turned out to be bogus and that he can't buy gas to go back to Indiana? I guess it's possible, but I don't really believe that either. So why, then, did I give him money?
He looked homeless. He hadn't showered in a while. He had long, dirty, blonde curls. He was probably in his 50s and he had piercing blue eyes. He looked right into my eyes when he talked and told me his "story," and I saw lies. I saw lots of lies. But I also saw pain. Lots of pain. He didn't even look like he expected me to believe his story, but I believed his pain, and he knew it. So I did not give money to a man from Indiana trying to buy food for his kids. I gave my money to a man in pain. I gave money to a man who probably did not choose the life he is living, but was living it by necessity. I gave money to a man who is so desperate, has been so wounded by life and society, that he asks people in a parking lot for money. He is probably getting by as best he can, given his history, his circumstances, who he is right now. And I can't blame him for doing the best he can, in that moment.
As I was driving downtown a few weeks ago, I saw a man walking with 2 bags in his hands. He was dressed in a white undershirt and a pair of shorts. He was a big man, who looked rather like the stereotypical "biker" dude--he had a scruffy beard, and burly arms with a tattoo. He walked with a slight lean to the right because of the bags he was carrying, but it gave his step a certain saunter that made him look even more tough.
I stopped at the traffic light right beside him and was watching him walk along as, suddenly, he stopped. He was looking at the ground at what appeared to me to be a bunch of leaves amongst all the other fallen leaves and garbage on the sidewalk. He stared at it for a long while, making me strain in my seat to see what he could be looking at. Then he touched it, ever so gently with his foot, and kept staring. I strained to get a clearer picture of what it could be and finally realized it was a tiny bird.
I continued to watch as he set down his bags beside him, and scooped the tiny creature in both hands. He turned it over, examining it as if in awe, and then gently rubbed the feathers with his giant thumb, smoothing them in a calming and comforting manner.
He looked around, holding the bird awkwardly in front of him in his right hand, then picked up the bags again in his left. He took a few awkward, precarious steps, and then knelt by a small dirt plot by the road. Gently, he laid down the bird, compassion filling his eyes, staring for a moment. The light turned green and I drove away.
When looking at these people I encountered, I realize that I could be any one of them, given different circumstances, different experiences, a different me. I’m not them…but I am, just as they aren’t me and they also are. I understand on this strange “meta” level that we are more alike and more closely connected than even I imagine. When we are so closely connected, and can have such an intimate knowledge of one another’s pain and joy and suffering, how could we not push away, classify an “other” and make ourselves separate?
So in encountering another soul, whether in the grocery store or on the street or in the therapy room, how are we not going to be changed? How are we not going to expand our consciousness and shake our self-world relationship? When doing something as monumental as encountering another person, how could it not shake everything?
You know, I can write these stories down, and I have learned that they can be powerful, but sometimes I feel they are still not really heard. I try to say it aloud, to tell the stories that move my spirit, and I either can’t find the words, or I get responses from people that leave me confused. “The man picked up a dead bird?” people say. I get so I don’t even know what my point is, or what it is that I want from people. I have this undying hope in me that someday I’ll be able to have the conversations that fill me up all the time, not so rarely I never know when they’re coming. I want someone to come to me and say, “So I was in the grocery store the other day and saw this person who…” and relate some story that would tell me they, too, were living and relating as a subjective being with other subjective beings, connecting in an objective world. And when that happens, I will say, “wow…isn’t it amazing when we feel that compassion for complete strangers?” or “I always find it so amazing when you see yourself, or someone you want to be, in a person you might have always ignored.” Or maybe I would just say “you really felt the soul of that person, didn’t you?”
But to say “I looked in that man’s face, and I realized he is doing what he can, just as I am, and I felt this incredible link in humanity that bonded me with him. I felt a power that was beyond me, and beyond him, that just left me in an incredible sense of awe and empathy,” just sounds ridiculous when the response is “But he touched the dead bird?” So I swallow that voice. When it’s too much, I put it in writing in the form of hurting and angry private journal entries that will never see the light of day, or disguise them in my “nice stories.” If I can’t even figure what I want, what I’m asking for, what I need….if I don’t even know what my POINT is…why should I even bother? I can’t ask for and expect something when I don’t even know what that something is.
I’m realizing more and more that the way I live and think and experience the world is different. I also need to learn to respect the way others see and experience the world, because I’m finding that somewhat difficult right now. Some days, I am so full of passion that I want to discuss and share and experience: passion that has always been there, that I haven’t necessarily had words for, or have been too shy or embarrassed or self-conscious to show. But now that I feel it is endangered and that I am losing that clarity and voice, I’ll do anything to bring it back.
As much as I don’t want to lose it, I don’t necessarily like it. There are days and times when I absolutely despise that part of me. I don’t want to be this ball of emotions and energy and feeling. But I also realize that living without that part of me is living without my core, my soul, and what makes me who I am. So I choose to think and feel and breathe and be, and know that one day I’ll find something that will also fill me up. I will find a place where I am needed as myself.