Sitting with a Stranger: On Injury and Empathy

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“That’s not my name,” I shouted, “My name is Damian!” I was angry. Maybe there were tears, I can’t remember, but I remember shouting a third grade shout. “Leave me alone!”

“Okay, Taco Paco.”

“Stop!” I yelled.

“Whatever, Burrito Pete.”

“My name is DAMIAN!”

“No, your name is Poop Crusty!” They laughed a third grade laugh, piercing and volatile and mean.

“That’s not my name!” Now there were tears. My skin was being compared to feces. I may have been eight but I understood the insult. I tried to be strong, but sometimes I just couldn’t be.

At my well-to-do Catholic grade school I was one of a handful who had brown or black skin, the only one in my class. I was also very shy and overweight. I was slow at reading. I still solved math problems by counting on my fingers. The Payless shoes I wore didn’t compare to the name brands running around at recess. And I felt more comfortable playing hopscotch and foursquare than touch football.

I wasn’t aware how these attributes made me different until my classmates taught me. It was like a real life game of, “One of These Things is Not Like the Other.” I never had a chance to fit in. Those kids made me into an eight-year-old with handicaps, a fatso, retard, hobo, stupid gay-wad. I was pushed around, spat on and laughed at; bullied, by any other name. Teachers said it was just boys being boys, kids being kids. “You need to toughen up,” one teacher said. I may have been a kid, but those words weren’t comforting coming from an adult.  

***

A few years back I witnessed a homeless man being shoved around by teenagers. My heart sank and my legs sprang into action, running towards the scene, shouting: “Stop! Stop!” A levee of emotion burst and I began shoving these kids to the ground. They ran away, and I saw the man’s ashy face streaked with tears, his change cup ripped and money strewn about. As he collected himself and his things, we spoke. Actually, it was more like…we sat. Something in me didn’t want to leave him alone.

The distance between me and where he decided to sit expressed the deep distrust of strangers.  He was beside himself, rife with tears and audible cries. Eventually I said something. I can’t remember what exactly, probably some comment on the weather. Whatever I said, it was a place to begin. Gradually, the gap between us narrowed. I learned about his dreams of wanting to own a barbershop. He had three kids and an ex-wife, Lucy. He had an obsession with washing his hands and sneaking pumps of lotion from the Walgreens down the street. And being harassed by kids wasn’t new to him.

From the trembling of his voice I imagined a heart already too shattered to break, almost eviscerated by the teasing and taunting of teenagers. To be homeless wasn’t a requirement to understand this man’s grief. All I could do in that moment was offer dignity and companionship. To do that, I drew from the afflictions in my own life story to grasp the emotion of what he was going through. Two hours and a Subway sandwich later, we parted.

***

My experiences at the well-to-do Catholic grade school branded themselves into my psyche.They’ve informed the ways I’ve engaged my world, my relationships, and my self-understanding. It’s taken an enormous amount of time to mend the damage and nurse the bruises. But I’ve recognized more and more, with damage and bruises comes a kind of sensitivity –  a sensitivity for myself and even more, a sensitivity for others.

I could hear suffering and loneliness,  anguish and misery from that homeless man. The course of his life made these feelings particular to him. But the particulars of these sentiments in my own life gave me the ability to sit with him, to hold his hand through tears and stretches of silence as he gathered his thoughts and felt his way through the pain. I was able to listen to him beyond words, because his pain was in his heart and I understood.  

There are many instances where I find myself drawn to people pushed to the edges of society. I recognize myself in their shoes even if the shoes I’m wearing are a different color. My life includes wonderful memories and beautiful, life-altering moments. But it also includes profound rejection and hurt. Pain I didn’t want, but pain I received.

So if I can, I’ll confront a name-caller. I won’t tell anyone they need to toughen up if life is getting hard. I’ll create an atmosphere of inclusion with whomever is in my presence. And if someone tries to shove me to the ground because of who I am, I have hope a stranger will fend them off, sit with me, and maybe buy me a sandwich.

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The cover image, from pexels.com, can be found here.

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