By Carrie Classon
I heard him yelling before I saw him.
He was in front of the church. His possessions were loaded into a shopping cart, and it appeared he was trying to navigate the steep hill. And he was yelling.
Was there a fight? Should I be worried?
But when I finally saw him, he was standing alone with his shopping cart. His face was flushed, and his voice was loud. I walked until I stood on the sidewalk in front of him.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
He stopped yelling immediately. He looked surprised—as if his yelling had been happening in a private place, and he hadn’t expected anyone to notice. His eyes were wild, and his clothes were torn. He looked as if he had lived without a home for a long time.
“He said I was an animal!”
His eyes darted off past the clump of trees that delineates the church property. I could see no one. Maybe there was someone just out of sight. Maybe there was no one. It probably doesn’t matter.
I looked back at this man. He was no longer yelling. He looked as if he might cry.
“Well, you’re not,” I said.
He looked at me in a peculiarly intense way, as if to see if I could be trusted to tell the truth. I’ve seen this look, from time to time, in homeless people. Some will not make eye contact at all. They will look down or away as if I don’t exist, or they will speak over my shoulder, never meeting my eyes. This man looked directly into my eyes and watched me closely.
“You are absolutely not an animal,” I told him firmly.
I saw his shoulders drop as if he was setting down a heavy weight. The person or phantom behind the trees seemed to be forgotten. He continued to look at me.
I didn’t know what else to say. So I patted my heart, and I told him, “And I want you to know that I care.”
I held his eyes for a moment longer and then headed off home. He might have said something after that. It sounded as if he was trying to say something, to explain something, but I knew there was nothing more I could do.
We all carry so much.
All the way home and for much of that night, I thought about that lonely man with the shopping cart and his outrage at being called an animal. He was indignant and afraid and desperate for it not to be true, and—maybe for just a moment—he was reassured it was not true because some random older woman on the sidewalk told him so. Life is so precarious sometimes.
Later that night, lying in bed, I told my husband, Peter, about the man and what I’d said.
“You are kind,” Peter told me.
I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I know for certain that strangers have helped me when I needed help, and kind words have changed my day from terrible to something better—something more hopeful. I think of the many people I can never pay back and I hope I can pay forward some of the undeserved kindness I’ve been shown over all the years of my life.
But more than anything, when I think about that lonely man, fighting off his demons, I realize I have no idea how it feels to face anything as large or as terrifying as that man faces every day.
And for that, I am terribly—selfishly—grateful.