A Lesson For The Learning...
"It's a lesson too late for the learning, Made of sand, made of sand. In the wink of an eye my soul is turnin', In your hand, in your hand. Are you going away with no word of farewell? Will there be not a trace left behind? Well, I could've loved you better, didn't mean to be unkind. You know that was the last thing on my mind."
Tom Paxton’s words...not mine. One of my favorite folk singers of all time, if you must know. Better than Dylan. Better than Baez. Better than Collins. I’d rank him up there with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.
I was listening to this song while I was working out in the barn the other day...recalling when I used to play it in coffee houses decades ago. I would play for drinks and tips and the occasional companionship it might bring, even if just for the night.
And as usual, one thought led to another...to another and another, and before I knew it I was miles and years away from this little barn, back in time to a different world and a different me. My message today is a good blend of confession and humble boasting..
I’d just come out of a singer / songwriter show in a tiny coffee shop known as Godfrey Daniels in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The year was 1991. I’d been listening to a guy by the name of Louden Wainright III and leaving with the realization that had I only NOT put away my guitar and yielded to my aspirations for a more materially satisfying life...I too might have become as solid and focused as this guy. Oh well...such is life.
I headed across the street to a restaurant called The Bridge Works for a late dinner and a few drinks.
When I came out of the restaurant, I was momentarily startled by a figure that seemed to be emerging from the shadows. It didn’t take long before I could see it was one of the dozens of homeless men who lived on the streets of this side of the city.
My first reaction was to turn and rush away, pushing my wallet down further into the safety of my jacket pocket and heading for my car. But then the non-descript figure spoke to me, which of course made him human and stopped me in my tracks.
“Got any change you can spare?” he asked me.
My back was still turned to him as I was struggling for what answer I would give. Yes, I had money on me...yes, it was money I could spare. But if I gave it to him, God only knows what he'd spend it on. Drugs? Alcohol? Who knew?
“No!” I answered, instantly feeling guilty. “But I would be happy to get you something to eat from the restaurant.”
“I don’t want your food,” the man responded. “I need money.”
“That’s what I thought,” I answered, now more confident than I was before about how my money would be spent. I would not...I could not, be part of that. So I turned and walked away.
I hadn’t gotten even ten more steps from him before my level of judgment rose to my level of anger. That was what made me turn around. That was what made me confront him. That was also a turning point for me in my life.
“You don’t want my food but you’ll take my money!” I shouted. “As if I don’t know what you’ll spend it on. Do I look that stupid? I’m not trying to be the bad guy here, but you are. You’re trying to make me feel guilty.”
But the truth of the matter was, he wasn’t doing anything. He was obviously accustomed to being rejected. He wasn’t pursuing me. He wasn’t even speaking to me any longer. Any guilt I might be feeling was self imposed.
He could have just told me to go to hell...but he didn’t. Instead, he turned around and motioned for me to come closer. Oddly, I did.
As I got nearer to him, he pulled a shopping cart out from the shadows and pulled back the blanket that covered the top. Once it was pulled back, I could see all of this poor soul’s worldly possessions. I felt the pain of angst tightening in my stomach.
“I have food,” he answered calmly, pointing to a loaf of bread, a few cans of tuna, a jar of peanut butter and two candy bars. “I don’t need any more. It would go to waste and in the world I live in, waste is the worst kind of sin.”
He pulled off the baseball cap he was wearing and I watched as tresses of curly, matted, filthy hair fell to his shoulders...
“If I had a few dollars,” he said. “I might be able to take a shower at the YMCA over on Broad Street. I might be able to afford a haircut...maybe a shave.”
He leaned one arm against the block wall of the restaurant, balancing himself, and with his other hand he pulled up his foot...
“These shoes aren't even my size,” he said, pushing his finger into a hole in the side. “The soles are separating and they stink to high heaven.”
He put his foot back down on the sidewalk and put his cap back on his head...
“I just wanted to feel and look like a man again,” he said. “I swear I wasn’t trying to con you.”
I was completely taken aback...saddened, embarrassed, sickened by the way I judged another human being. I had no idea what to say to this man...none whatsoever!
He nodded goodbye to me and began pushing his cart back down East 4th Street...
“God bless you,” was the last thing he said.
I asked him to wait. I was reaching into my coat pocket to get my wallet but he kept walking...
“Wait, please,” I asked again. He stopped.
“I’d taken two twenty dollar bills out of my wallet and had folded them in half and then half again...
“Please,” I said. “Take this. And accept my apology.”
He took the money and nodded at me. He did not say thank you but I understood his gratitude...
“Thank you for your honesty,” I said as he was disappearing back into those shadows.
Without turning, he raised his right hand in to the air, gesturing his gratitude again.
I learned a bit about that man that night...through his honesty and frankness. I did not learn his name nor his story, but neither were necessary.
But I learned even more about myself. I learned I was a judgmental man. I learned my compassion and empathy ended at the point where I felt my pride and values were at risk. I was immensely disappointed in myself. I saw the man I truly was that night.
But on my dark and quiet ride back home to New Tripoli, I began to see the amazing blessing to which I had been exposed. Through this homeless man’s pathetic condition and the brutal honesty that it produced, I was given a glimpse into the man I wanted to become.
The world in which we live coaxes and prods us to look AT ourselves, but rarely does it make those same demands that we look WITHIN ourselves.
We spend hours picking the right clothes for the right look...we spend even more in front of a mirror making sure each and every little detail on the OUTSIDE is perfect. We are desperate to fit into what others believe we should be.
Our sense of identity is tied to the cars we drive, the jobs we have, the social status we have attained. Our religious, political or ideological viewpoints seem to matter as well.
But I had just met a man with no car...no job...no social standing...nothing! I had no idea his religion, his politics or his thinking. None of that mattered to him. All I knew was that his sense of identity outshined mine by a million watts!
We learn how to become doctors and architects and engineers...artists and writers and musicians...activists and academics. But we sure as hell don’t spend much time learning what it means to be a human being.
I could have just as easily walked away from that man that night, without giving him or his plight a second thought. It is after all, how we are conditioned to respond. I don’t know what it was that made me linger. All I know is that I have thought about that man and the lesson he taught me a hundred times since the night I met him.
It was a lesson NOT too late for the learning.