I believe human beings show the greatest strength in the darkest of moments. Our strength is born of an unassailable dignity that each of us carries inside. I learned this lesson from a 12-year-old named Victor.
Victor lived in an abandoned building in the bus terminal of a poor El Salvadoran town called Quezaltepeque. When he visited the lean-to where his parents lived, his mother screamed at him, his father beat him. Usually, Victor slept on a strip of cardboard, sniffing glue to dull all that pain.
I’d first met Victor while conducting research on the country’s violent street gangs. He was staying temporarily at a shelter run by former gang members I knew. When he escaped to the streets, I followed.
At first, I was more than a little afraid – both for Victor, and for myself. I felt sorry for these children, and I wanted to change their situations. But I was just 22. Who did I think I was, trying to dream up solutions to problems I hardly understood?
Victor reached out to me as I wandered around that bus terminal. He introduced me to his friends, who until then had eyed me with distrust. Despite his circumstances, Victor displayed a consistent generosity to everyone around him. If he found a fallen mango in the creek, he shared it. If someone offered him a tamale, he broke it in half.
He loved dancing to 80s music and holding babies, and he proudly led me to a hidden swimming hole where he and his friends bathed using slivers of soap.
I felt a special connection with this little boy with his child’s candor and his old man’s wisdom. I imagine no one ever explained to Victor how special he was. He told me once that I was a good person and he was a bad person. “God loves you more,” he said, his big brown eyes widening with conviction.
The pure wrongness of this pronouncement made my stomach drop. I knelt down on the dirty asphalt and tried to argue with him. Then again, aren’t wounded souls always being told they’re responsible for their own suffering?
I knew he couldn’t see in himself the strength I saw, much less the beauty.
One gray afternoon, I was sitting on a doorstep when I felt something crack against my skull. A mentally ill alcoholic named Trinidad had accidentally hit me with the stick she was wielding as she chased after Victor. Apparently, he owed her 60 cents. I watched my young friend lose one of his laceless, too-big shoes. I saw him fall. Dodging Trinidad’s blows, I scooped him up. I wanted to carry him forever – away from all this hurt.
Instead, after about 30 yards, he asked me, quietly, to put him down. He wiped his tear-smudged cheeks, straightened his back, and walked back toward the bus terminal.
Nearly a decade later, the power of that moment –and the strength of that little boy – still takes my breath away.
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