About a week ago, on a hot afternoon in Arizona, I stopped at a convenience store near work for a bottle of water and a soda. As I was walking in, I noticed a young lady leaning against one of the store’s cinder block columns. There was something vaguely familiar about her. I searched my memory for a clue. Former student? Parent? A sibling of one of our kids? Nothing. It was evident that she was in some distress. Perhaps, it was exhaustion, a rough day (or a rough life), or simply the heat. She avoided eye contact, so I continued into the store where I made my purchase, grabbing an extra bottle of water.
I’m not sure why, but as I was making my way back to my truck, I turned and asked, “Young lady, are you okay?” For the first time she looked at me, and asked if I could spare any money. I handed her the two dollars in my pocket and a bottle of water. She thanked me and said, “God bless,” and that was the end of our interaction. I wasn’t able to make any connections and she either didn’t recognize me, or chose not to acknowledge if she did.
However, several days after the encounter, I have been unable to shake the thought of how frequently I walk by people without consideration for their circumstances. Some of them, like this girl, are obviously “in a battle.” In other cases, it might not be so apparent — an averted glance, a solemn quietness, or perhaps, nothing. Almost unnoticeable. It’s like voluntary blindness. Oblivious to the problems of anyone but myself.
I recently began reading the book Refugee by Alan Gratz. One of the characters in the book, Josef, is a young Jewish boy fleeing Germany as Hitler began his reign of terror. In the story Josef described the yellow Star of David he was forced to wear as a “talisman that made him disappear.” Others acted as if he did not exist. As if he wasn’t even there.
The people chose not to see them.
How often are we guilty of this? How often do we “choose” not to see those who are in distress, those who are suffering injustice, those who are grappling with burdens too large to bear without assistance. It is easier to walk on by, to turn our heads, or to simply wander with our eyes proverbially closed. Perhaps we are afraid to fully acknowledge the pain and injustice in our world because to do so we be an admission that we feel incapable, or that we are unwilling, to do anything about it.
The principle suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. – Marcus Borg
I don’t have a solution. I have a feeling it isn’t two dollars and a bottle of water. I do think it has something to do with acknowledgement. Acknowledgment that we are all in “this” together. Acknowledgement that we have the capability to help one another. Acknowledgement of our shared humanity.
One of the best books I have ever read about recognizing the immeasurable value of all human beings is Tattoos on the Heart, by Father Greg Boyle. In fact, it is one of the best books I have ever read…period. It is so good, that I am currently listening to the audio version. Again.
In one particularly poignant anecdote, Father Greg describes Carmen — a heroin addict, a prostitute, a fighter, a lady who is dealing with a tremendous amount of baggage and trauma. She stops to see him just prior to a baptismal ceremony he is scheduled to administer. She tells Father Greg she needs help and begins a narrative of her issues. Time ticks away and the scheduled baptism grows closer. Father Greg grows impatient. As they talk, she tilts her head toward the ceiling and her eyes fill with tears. She looks at Father Greg, and says, “I…am…a disgrace.” The next line in the book is extremely moving, and convicting.
Suddenly her shame meets mine, for when Carmen walked through that door I had mistaken her for an interruption.
There are boundless opportunities for us to be difference-makers in the lives of others. Daily. To do so requires that we live with our eyes wide open — ready to receive others, to acknowledge their existence, to recognize their worth, and to view them as human. Not an interruption.
May God grant me the patience, the perception, and the willingness to do this. To live my life with eyes wide open to the needs of others.