Friday, December 25, 2009

'Tis Not Just Seasonal...A Chance to Encounter

December 25, 2009

I bought a homeless man a cup of coffee today and that is an opening line that will not be accompanied with my usual one-two punch, snappy repartee. It happened spontaneously, unexpectedly, and from the heart.
I was performing a normal task, picking up four items for a hundred bucks, when I noticed a youngish guy sitting on the bench, right near the store’s entrance. He was friendly and, normally, maybe like most of us, I’m too busy or afraid of too-close engagement with a mental health patient to interact. But today, well, today this young man began with a line that really brought out the maternal instinct in me. He told me he was cold, followed by saying he was sleeping in the woods with his dog. Being a mom to the second power and an adopter of pound critters, he had me at, “I’m cold.” His basic need for warmth wasn’t fulfilled and that really stopped me. Cold.
I chatted with him a bit, he expressed his hope for better circumstances and I went about my now not-so-merry way to get everything my family wanted to eat. I was not cold. I was not hungry. I was not destitute and I can count on one hand how many times I’ve slept in the woods, voluntarily, “for fun” as the rest of us like to think of camping. What I was, was humbled. Mightily.
As he sat in front of the store, benefitting from the heat that would cascade out the sliding doors every time they opened, I was struck by this man’s humanity and dignity. When walking out with everything I needed to fulfill the creature comforts of my family I witnessed the store clerk asking him if she could access the announcement board behind him, which would necessitate him moving and he politely, and even energetically, acquiesced. It was so touching. There was just a certain character about him that influenced me in taking the time to notice. Amongst his difficulties he was something we used to call a gentleman.
My instinct took over, pushing me into action. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t overanalyze it. I didn’t wonder what I should do. I just turned and trucked on over to the coffee shop to get him a cup of coffee with all the cream and sugar a man and his dog could want. Regardless of your faith base, or none at all, as I handed him his coffee he said reading the bible provided him with comfort, specifically, Proverbs.
I don’t know what got him there and I’ll leave the addressing of these more politically-charged issues to columnists and pundits better equipped than I to address them. What matters most is that he was there and I noticed; that we all notice, negating the concept of invisibility. It’s important why he’s there, only inasmuch as we address him as an individual story, free of judgment. As human beings we are capable of unifying around similarities, dividing over differences.
We talked about hope for the possibility that things will get better. He had on mittens, I observed, and that made me happy. He told me he loved coffee and I told him I was so glad, swallowing my emotions in the face of this average-appearing interchange. To me, it was anything but average and I feel differently than I did before that day. It made me realize that I should do more because I can.
The tears didn’t unleash until I sat down to tell you about this experience, but they’re not the sad kind, so much as the kind that express gratitude for a humbling exchange. In this season and, really, all others, we are so often filled with the need to let others know what we’re about. We forget to listen to the stories of those aged relatives who tell us the same ones, year after year, and we don’t sit down, patiently, and listen for the umpteenth time as our children detail the many toys they sure hope Santa will bring. Here’s the greatest gift, really. Noticing. Listening. Okay, I know that’s two gifts. How about listening to what someone else is about? Their wishes. Their motivations. Their back story.
The lesson is that human beings are so filled with hope and possibility that even amongst meaningless chatter about pop culture nonsense, political posturing and attitudes of entitlement; we can still know that connecting to another human being is a cherished part of any season.
So, now I’ll issue my challenge to you, that the next twenty-nine days reflect simple acts of giving – by you. There is a website that tells the story of a young woman who, when diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, was told to quit feeling sorry for herself and immediately engage in 29 days of giving. Her goal “is to create a worldwide revival of the giving spirit in the world” and the website is:, if you’re interested. There’s even a book out now.
The kindnesses are simple and, most often, not monetary at all. Anything you can offer up spur-of-the-moment works; scraping the ice off of someone else’s car, feeding a stranger’s meter, parting with something you no longer use, or just calling up someone and providing them with the gift of listening.
‘Tis the season for humanity – all year long.

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