When you exit Route 2 toward Arlington in Massachusetts, there is a stretch of road where the cars routinely bottleneck.
Several roads converge to one lane and peppered in and among the merging stretches of tarmac are patches of green—a strip of grass here, a triangle of grass there, and then a little park that runs along the side of the road once it has become just one road.
During certain times of the year, the green patches are visited by Canadian geese—a routine stop on the way north or south. Year round, they are utilized by homeless individuals, as welcomed places to sit and rest during the long and grueling days of panhandling.
Through the years of driving this route I have come to anticipate these folks. Some faces remain familiar, some have been here for years, and some move on to less populated stretches of road.
Sometimes I give to the woman whose body I have watch steadily shrink from robust to skeletal—her jeans now cinched tight around her waste to prevent them from slipping down past her miniscule hips.
Sometimes I have no spare dollars in my wallet and skillfully keep my car in the farthest lane in order to avoid the twist in my gut over saying no. Each time I drive this stretch of road the questions beg—can I help today? Do I want to help today? Am I moved to help today?
The answer does not always come easily. Just as healthy competition feeds a healthy economy, so it is with this little microcosm near the Route 2 to Mass Ave artery. Signs get bigger, brighter and more descriptive.
Each person wants to appeal to the place where the sense of privilege and altruism meet inside of us, and hopes that we are moved enough to use the three minutes while stopped at the red light to open our wallets, roll down the window and pop a dollar into the can.Whose sign will call to me today?
Homeless..homeless and clean…homeless with kids… homeless vet…homeless and jobless… homeless, jobless, clean, vet with kids and cancer.
The reality is overwhelming, the result can be a feeling of utter helplessness—stressful at best—until the other day.
The other day I exited Route 2 with the same anticipations of any other day. I prepared myself to either dodge or engage. Truthfully I was tired, worn out and just wanted to get home and get out of the damn car. I kept to the far lane to avoid the issue, and as I edged closer to the end of the bottleneck I saw him.
A man about my age, fairly robust in stature and a smooth, bald head. In his hands he carried a big colorful sign that said, “Just Smile.” That’s it. Just smile.
And reading that made me feel human and connected. It gave me perspective and helped me realize that being cranky about being in the car was a luxury that others didn’t have. It made me soften and just then I realized that I needed that. And as quickly as I realized that I needed that, I had the urge to thank him—yes, thank him.
In a flash of a micro second, this familiar paradigm that is normally fraught with the constant conundrum of—can I help this person today—was flipped upside down and inside out. Without a second thought, I took out five dollars from my wallet, handed the bill to this man and said, “thank you.” I told him I really needed to read that today—and we experienced a pure moment together in our shared smiles.
As I drove away I was reminded of my work, both here and in Haiti and why I do what I do. While what calls us to the work is the urge to make a difference—to help people—what we end up experiencing is so much more.
Whether it is beyond the metal detectors and pat downs of the women’s prison or in the crumbling yet, vibrant streets of Port-au-Prince, we are connecting. We make time for one another and we see each other as fellow human beings. We connect among the emotional foundation that all human beings are made of—fear, joy, sorrow, anger, pride, guilt, shame and love.
In every group I have been with, no matter when or where, no matter what language is spoken, we share—I am afraid to die alone. I am still grieving the death of my mother. I am afraid that I am not worthy. I worry that my partners don’t love me as much as I love them. I am afraid of making mistakes. I am heartbroken that my partner cheated on me. And in that sharing we arrive at I love you and I love you too. And the moment is as pure as any other and it is a gift beyond measure—and words fail to express how thankful I am to them.
My work with underserved populations has taught me so much.
Yes, I can give a damn fine power point on the root of health risk behaviors and the body’s response to trauma. But beyond that, this work has taught me about humans and the power of human connection.
It is the sediment that sits under all of the definitions that we wrap around ourselves to make us distinct and individual. It is the fertile breeding ground for true compassion and pure love and it has the power to move mountains.
My friend on the side of the road—with his sign that said, “Just smile,” has now touched the hundreds (well, fingers crossed) of people that are reading this right now. Those who read it may feel something. A shift maybe, or a softening that leads to a connection and then another person’s life is touched. Like a garden that grows when the soil is fertile we can experience a shift in our collective consciousness that will—I am sure—will change everything.
Editor: Brianna Bemel
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