In 1972, I was a lonely teenager who had left home early to try to make it as a guitar player in the Boston music scene. One chilly afternoon around sunset, I was biking back to a friend’s apartment when I approached a steep hill. I’m going to go for it, I thought, and pedaled hard to gain speed. I passed a tall black man, who flashed me a winning smile, and pivoted around in his basketball sneakers to watch my ascent.
I don’t remember if he called out, “You can do it!” but that was the feeling he gave me. As I strained to keep pedaling, I glanced back at him, and saw that he was still standing there, grinning broadly in the lengthening shadows, pumping his arms to send me strength. My legs ached, and I would have given up if he hadn’t been there, but now I felt determined to reach the top. And that I did, greeted by the last golden rays of the sun, and a loud cheer from the man below.
What a powerful moment, one made more vivid by the emotional neediness bursting around its borders. The city was not treating me well, and I had no idea where I belonged, or what I was capable of doing. None of the oh-so-busy strangers seemed to care. Still, I kept on keeping on, trying to move my young life forward. But it was tough going.
Did that man have any idea he was giving me the encouragement I so desperately needed? Maybe he was an athlete or coach having a good day, or just a person who liked to see others take on challenges and succeed. Whoever he was, I’ve never forgotten him. And he imparted an incredible teaching to me that day, one that is expressed by the saying, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Some scholars attribute it to Philo, others to Plato. In Bob Dylan’s memoir, he writes that it was a favorite of his grandma. In any case, whenever strangers cross my path, I try to remember that they might be facing difficulties that are beyond anything I’ve ever had to struggle with. And I try to respond to them like that man back in Boston who, without even knowing my name, became my personal cheerleader at a critical moment. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
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