A movement out of the corner of my eye caught my attention, breaking my focus on my journal writing. I looked across the open expanse of the downtown park where I was enjoying the late afternoon sun, bearable thanks to a light breeze. I watched the scene unfold, it only lasted maybe two minutes, but it stopped everything in me as I was drawn into this powerful moment.
“I told you I’d be back” the man said as he approached the older man – who was sitting in a wheelchair, head bobbing with excitement. He was carrying a tray loaded with Subway sandwiches and a drink, he bent down to help situate the meal on the older man’s lap. They exchanged a few words, and I noticed the faster head bobbing – possibly tied to emotion, I wondered. I took in the eyes that maintained contact with kindness, the slight smile and easy words that communicated respect and affirmed dignity. He straightened up, held out his hand and bumped fists before walking to his car and driving away.
Soon after the feelings of gratitude for having been present enough to take in this scene passed, a niggling sense of uneasy self-awareness began to take over, particularly as I pondered the difference between my response and this man’s. I had passed the same wheelchair-bound older man as I exited the parking garage, intent on securing a quiet place to journal after my counseling session. I made a point of walking around him on the crosswalk – I’d seen him downtown before in the same area, witnessed him asking people walking by for spare change. I didn’t want to deal with that today – I wanted to get my iced coffee, find a spot to sit, and savor some time for reflection.
Here’s the thing that brought me up short: I betrayed my own impulse to do good because I was only focused on my own needs and desires. Such self-betrayal requires justification, which came easily as I thought about how annoying panhandlers were as they pressured you for money, increasing their pitch if you engaged with them at all…better to just walk on by, avoiding even eye contact. And yet, every time I walk by, something in me whispers a reminder of our shared human dignity – at the very least, I could offer my eyes and a smile. Even if it costs me in the discomfort of a longer exchange, I walk away reminded of the importance of love for every one of us, not just me or those I am comfortable with.
Intent on my own comfort, attuned only to my own pain, I shut down an essential part of who I am, and in so doing, limited my capacity for love. Here’s the other thing I noticed: even witnessing the simple act of kindness in providing a meal for someone in need resulted in my heart expanding. How much more would have been possible if I had paid attention sooner, with eyes to see and meet my own need, as well as those of another?