I encountered a homeless man on a cold, grey day in January, sitting by the window of a convenience store.
His clothing was worn and dirty, his old yellow coat pulled up against his neck, zipped to the top, a knitted red scarf tucked in around the edges. His hands, in torn and ragged gloves, were wrapped around a cup of coffee. Probably the warmest thing he would experience all day.
The small shopping cart that held his meager belongings was pushed against the wall, a copy of a free local paper spread over the top. He smiled as he turned the page, moving to the next story.
Long white hair flowed down his back, a little greasy, but combed. It was the same color as the beard and mustache that covered most of his face.
He looked up as I passed.
I smiled and said hello.
His weathered face crinkled into a large, friendly smile. Deep blue eyes, surrounded by wrinkles of age and time, sparkled as he told me good morning.
He went back to reading, and I went inside for my morning soda and a muffin.
Walking through the store, I couldn’t get his face out of my mind. His serene nature, as he sat in the cold with a simple cup of coffee and a newspaper, haunted me.
I couldn’t help but wonder when he’d last had warm food in his belly, when he’d last slept somewhere heated.
It wasn’t in my power to provide him with shelter, but I knew I could at the very least provide him with a little sustenance. So I picked up a breakfast sandwich and made my way to the register.
I’ll never forget the feeling of handing the man a warm sandwich. I’ll never forget the surprise that colored his expression, the smile that spread across his worn features. I’ll never forget the kindness in his eyes or his words of thanks.
Most importantly, I’ll never forget the feeling of rightness from doing something small for another human being.
Are you wondering why I would share this experience?
I’m not looking for an ‘atta girl’, or even expecting you to understand. But I haven’t been able to get his face, his smile, his kind expression, out of my thoughts.
You see, when I pass homeless people on the street – and I pass quite a few every day as I drive to and from my office downtown – there is a deeply ingrained sense of ‘me’ and ‘them’.
Society has trained me to see them as different, as slackers, as lazy, as people who made bad choices and ended up in a bad situation – their travails their own fault - and I am blameless when I pass them with nary a thought.
But on that cold January morning, I saw past the dirty, ragged clothing. I saw past the misfortune and the lowly circumstances.
That day, I saw gratitude and kindness in the eyes of another human being. I saw a fellow child of God.
Yes, he’s a man whose path is different than my own, at least at this point. His story is unknown to me. His joys, his pains, his successes, his failures: a mystery. I wonder if he was a soldier whose benefits have run out. Was he married for fifty years, and upon the death of his spouse, lost all? Did a medical emergency drain his resources? What happened to lead him to this place?
I fail to truly understand his life, because I’ve never walked in his shoes.
And yet, the truth is that we are more alike than different.
The more I ponder on the situation, the more I’m inundated with memes on Facebook and other social media that scream about ‘the takers’, the more political propaganda I see, the deeper my feelings over this occasion go.
Reality for so many in our country is that we’re one payday, one month, one medical crisis, from where this man sits. As we pass them on the street we have no way of knowing their stories, no way of comprehending what brought them to this place – and we can’t envision our lives turning to this particular path.
We are ‘us’. He’s a ‘them’, receiving not our compassion, but our scorn.
As a society we do this a lot.
Our religious sect vs. theirs.
Christians vs. Muslims.
Rich vs. poor vs. middle class.
Citizen vs. immigrant.
Heterosexual vs. homosexual.
Republicans vs. Democrats vs. Independents vs. Libertarians.
Our country vs. the world.
We look for and cherish the differences instead of the similarities, nurturing the distrust of those who aren't like us.
What it boils down to (in my eyes), is that the substance which makes us human and decides who we are is mostly the same – whether we have brown eyes or blue, brown skin or white, worship God or not, feel attraction to the opposite sex or the same, have a lot of money or none, or live in this country or another.
If you change that substance too much, life won’t happen. It can’t happen.
And that is only the stuff of our physical nature.
So, we are all born, our lives are lived in various places and manners, but we all end up in the same place at the end of our journey, as we breathe our last.
I believe the value of the time we spend on this Earth is measured in the compassion we have for others, the love we have for our fellow beings, the actions of our daily lives.
And I hope and pray that if I make an error in judgment in my life, it is an error on the side of humanity, of compassion.
Because “There but for the Grace of God, go I” is more than a saying.