You and I both pass them on the way to work, or catch them sitting next to our window at a red light. We are so busy concentrating on not making eye contact that we fail to remember that they are people too. When the light turns green, we swallow our guilt with our morning coffee and proceed with our day. That moment becomes lost in the shuffle of school, work, and every day hassles. Those people are soon forgotten; unless they just happen to be our saving grace someday.
I understand your money is better spent on Starbucks or on ever-increasing priced fuel. I get it, the thoughts of “they will just spend it on drugs or booze” and “they are lazy and just don’t want to work” come to mind when you see a homeless person holding a sign, but take a moment to look them in the eyes. I can assure you that the weathered look on their faces is not always from substance abuse, but from things much more painful. I can also tell you that they see a similarly weathered face on you. Sure, you haven’t faced freezing nights on a park bench or walking miles on the unforgiving pavement in the middle of summer; but you have been through your share of hard times. We all have our bad days.
I had a bad day once, one that is not easily forgotten. My car had broken down in the Arizona heat and I was stranded at a gas station. It seems stereotypical, but I had popped the hood and stared blankly at the neglected “gadgets” and “yada-yadas” and realized I would be there for a while. I took a seat on the pavement and looked around. I was selfishly thinking of how I would be late for work and how hot it was when I suddenly heard a voice. “Having car trouble”? I turned to see a man in worn out clothes, with a leather-like appearance, and a young scruffy dog sitting next to him. I quietly replied “yes”. He asked if he could take a look, and I responded hesitantly with a “sure”. He pulled a rag from his pocket and got to work, I went inside to buy us a couple of drinks and by the time I got back the hood was down and he stood smiling. “You had a plastic bag all tangled up blocking your radiator”. “I pulled it out and you should be all ready to go”. I didn’t know what to say. I had judged him from the moment I saw him and I felt pity for him and his dog. At that moment I realized he should really feel pity for me. I had been so blind and close-minded, and had assumed that because he was a homeless man he just wanted something and thought I was going to give him money. He wiped his hands off as I put down the cup of water for his companion. “Thank you so much”, I said. “Can I buy you some lunch or help you out with a ride or anything”? “You just did help me”, he said. I was quiet; I tried to recall how I had helped this man. After a short pause, I replied “how”? “You trusted me”, he said.
We sat talking for a while, and as it turns out he used to help his father work on cars before he was drafted into Vietnam. He was stationed overseas until he got caught in enemy fire and was shot in his left leg. He was “treated” and sent home. His father sold the family farm, and passed away shortly before he arrived in his hometown. He had no one. His left leg barely functions these days, so it is hard for him to find work and he makes do with what generous people give him. I shook his hand and thanked him one last time. I wished I could have spent the entire day with Jim and his dog, Lucky (of all things). As I drove away I realized that he appreciated life more than I did and that despite the circumstances he was in, he was okay. He didn’t let small things bother him, he just accepted what life dealt him and made the best of it. I felt a respect for him I had never experienced before. I will not forget them.
I constantly see Jim in the faces of the people sitting next to my window on the corner, and I look at them and smile. I realize that we are different, yet much the same. I think twice before judging and assuming them. I try to buy them lunch or give them any change I have and I realize this is a small gesture, but what Jim did for me that day proved to me that it is the small, kind gestures that really effect people. They make us better.
It turns out that my bad day could have been a lot worse and that the trivial occurrences of that day, and everyday are just small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. If you think about it, these things are what keep us grounded and keep us optimistic that a better day will come. It is the small things in life that make our days brighter and it’s those days that give us the strength and courage to laugh at the bad ones. Whether it is an overheating car, a stain on our favorite shirt, or even an angry driver that cuts us off in traffic, we can just shrug it off and remember not to “sweat the small stuff”. Life could always be worse. It is the audacity to laugh at our mistakes, fix our cars and clean our shirts with a smile and move on; that makes us great. These bad days make us better people, this I believe.
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