It’s Christmas morning and I’m waiting for my coffee at Starbucks. As I’m standing around I notice a man walking past outside. I’ve noticed him before because he looks a little worse for wear. Shoulder length hair, two crutches, legs that are disfigured, and a strong limp. Though I can’t be sure that he is homeless, it is clear that he doesn’t have it easy. I’ve seen him shuffling through the streets before, pulling a homemade sled behind him with a few random belongings. It takes him a great deal of time and effort to even walk 10 feet.
On this morning, being Christmas and all, I decided to say hi, and to see if I could offer him food or a little money. I was well aware that offering charity to someone who hasn’t asked for it could be extremely offensive, but on this special day, I thought it was worth the risk.
I went outside, smiled and motioned whether I could buy something to eat or give him some money. I was a little nervous because I didn’t want to offend him, but he simply smiled at me and shook his head and motioned that he didn’t want anything. With that I said “OK Merry Christmas” and waved good-bye, to which he cheerfully said “Ciao, Ciao”.
I have to admit I was a little taken aback by his refusal, but was really moved by how happy and friendly he had been. I told myself that from then on, I’d wave and say hi whenever I saw him, and for the next two weeks that is exactly what I did.
A few days ago while sitting at Starbucks with a friend, the Gentleman came up to our window. I went out to speak with him and we had a very animated conversation considering neither of us had any idea what the other was saying. My friend who was watching from inside said that people passing by were literally stopping to watch us talk, as if it was something remarkable. Eventually, I had to pull myself away because I simply couldn’t understand what he was trying to tell me. He continued to stand in front of the window and I had to ignore him, which felt horrible…but I didn’t know what else to do. He eventually wandered off and I went back to reading.
A while later, after a bathroom break, my friend presented me with two carefully decorated lighters and told me that my new acquaintance had stopped by and wanted me to have them. I was speechless! Did he want money for them? Why had he given them to me? I dont even smoke.
Well, you’re entitled to your own interpretation, but this is what my friend Ramsay who was with me at the time thought. We have a nasty habit of always thinking that we owe others something, or that we are expected to compensate somehow for acts of kindness. In Ramsay’s opinion though, the man didn’t want anything in return. This was his way of saying thank you to ME, for what I had already done for him. We are all humans after all and when we die, we are as equal as the day we were born. Unfortunately over the course of our life society stratifies us and we inevitably get treated and treat others differently depending on certain circumstances. On a basic level though, we all want the same things which include dignity, respect and compassion.
At the risk of sounding to cliché, sometimes it really doesn’t take much to make someone’s day. This is especially true when we are talking about those people who society has already marginalized, but it applies to us all.. A smile, a nod, a few words or a compliment. I was reminded of this on Christmas, and it’s something I’ll try to be more aware of in 2012.