I was at the crosswalk waiting for my turn. He trudged toward me, carrying his life in a few large duffel bags, slung in crisscrossed patterns around his lean frame. His jacket hood was pulled taut so only his face risked exposure to the biting wind. He crossed on red, intent on getting somewhere, maybe to a shelter. I hoped. I didn’t realize how closely I scrutinized his progress until he said “Happy Holidays to you.” Startled, I immediately sing-songed, “thank you and to you too.” The light turned green and I crossed away from him. I wasn’t even on the other side of the road when the urge to cry came over me. I thought about running back to give him money, but I didn’t. I had no right to assume he needed my help. He hadn’t asked for anything. He’d just been polite. More than I had done.
With no outlet to redeem myself as a “decent human being” shame clung to me. I stood paralyzed until my skirt-exposed legs burned from the cold and the “Don’t Walk” light flashed. I collected myself and walked swiftly on, seeking the sanctuary of the metro tunnel to ease my discomfort. Out of the wind, my blood warmed my bare skin and brought back my sense of order. I was safe inside en route to a cozy evening in my over-amenitied house where Matt, my dad, and our menagerie of animals would all be, expressing varying degrees of excitement at my arrival. As I waited for my train, I muddled through the emotions that moved me near tears in response to “the Carrier” (as I dubbed him in my internal dialogue). I thought about how it would have given me temporary reprieve to hand him a $20 on Christmas Eve. Yet, it would not have quelled the turmoil raging inside. That small interaction stirred something more than fleeting compassion. It struck the dark recesses of my humanity, exposing the automaton occupying my body.
It wasn’t his words, but his timing that had been my undoing. When he crossed toward me and I watched, not really seeing him, I had been congratulating myself on my do-gooder deed of helping an old man locate a church using my Iphone. I had also been thinking of the bottle of Genepy I remembered to pick up for Christmas dinner and was planning out how I would put Matt’s new coffee maker on the counter in the morning, like Santa. I felt so virtuous over my “self-less” acts that I hadn’t realized I was shamelessly staring at the Carrier without so much as nodding to acknowledge his existence as a fellow human being. With four words of holiday greeting, an act of kindness so profound given the terrible weight of his evident burdens, he delivered a knee-buckling blow to my illusions of virtue.
My “virtue” was cosmetic. Easily applied. It was the equivalent of recycling water bottles or donating out of fashion clothing to charity. We like to pretend these acts make us “good” but such small concessions can’t undo the harm of pillaging the earth for petroleum products and using children in poor countries to sew brand name labels on clothing that will be outdated in three months. They certainly didn’t help alleviate my guilt over ignoring the Carrier on Christmas Eve. Since that encounter, I’ve spent endless hours contemplating the importance of an interaction that lasted less than thirty seconds. It was like all that was insubstantial in me eroded, leaving crevices and crannies open to irritation. I have become an exposed tooth nerve or an unhealed wound.
It’s December 23rd, almost two years after I first wrote those words. Sometimes, I still think of him. The Carrier. It’s amazing how clear I can see him now, when he was almost invisible to me that night on the street. For a long while after that, I kept trying to nail down the exact significance of the experience and what obligation it created for me. It felt life-changing. I wrote so many endings to that essay, always trying to tie it up neatly into some heartfelt message for a potential reader. Maybe I thought I could cast myself in a better light if I showed that I learned my lesson somehow.
It was Matt who pointed out how artificial it seemed. He had listened patiently when I told him about the experience the night it happened. How it moved me. He also heard me go on and on about it for weeks afterwards. Matt knew as well as I did that I hadn’t figured anything out. I only knew that I felt naked to the bone and revealed as a fraud. But, it wasn’t the Carrier who judged me. I had done that all by myself. A couple years before I crossed paths with the Carrier, also near the holidays, I was taking the metro with my mom. We were walking together, and then suddenly, she hurried off leaving me in her wake. I hustled to catch up, just in time to watch her link arms with a strange man. It took me a moment to understand that the man was blind and my mom was helping him navigate the escalator. Mesmerized, I walked behind, watching and listening as the two of them joked like old friends. And I felt such awe at witnessing that moment.
Afterwards I asked my mom if she knew the man. She said no. I asked her how she knew he needed help. She said she didn’t know if he needed help. She then went on to express her amazement at people like him, with perceived handicaps, navigating the crowded, obstacle-ridden, metro stations that still terrified her. I realized as she talked that it was her admiration, not any sense of charity, that caused her to take the blind man’s arm. Today as I sat reflecting on the ghosts of Christmas past, those two experiences came forward and morphed into something entirely different. Like reproduction, they joined and gave birth to a new understanding. I don’t know how I didn’t see it before, but they were in fact the same experience, shown to me two different ways. Charity is a word we generally associate with monetary donations or gifts of time spent helping people in need. It’s what I first thought of when I saw my mom escort a blind man and what I thought I had lacked when I ignored a homeless man on Christmas Eve. The idea of it has come to imply an hierarchy – the wealthy give to the poor, the fortunate give to those less fortunate. But its etymology implies something very different – something more like unconditional love – not the stronger helping the weaker, but a shared human experience, valuable entirely of its own.
The night I met the Carrier, I was so caught up in doing all the things the affluent world has come to associate with Christmas, that I was a walking check list of holiday cheer instead of a real human being. Somehow, he broke through that and awakened the human in me. It was like a pipe that has been clogged. When it starts running again, all the bad stuff comes out first – so guilt and shame came gushing forth and I mistakenly thought that was the point.
I don’t know what it’s like to be blind or homeless. Most of my life, I’ve taken the coward’s route, blending in and acquiescing so I can belong, even when I know it’s wrong. And even though I aspire to it, I do not have my mother’s kindness or deep sympathy for other human beings. Frankly, I am probably too judgmental and self-centered to experience real charity in it’s etymological form. But despite my faults, I was a witness,with the ability to put into words those two poignant experiences that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. To the Carrier, the blind man, and my mother – I see you. Thank you for reminding me what it means to be human. To Matt, thank you for seeing me and helping me to see myself. Merry Christmas to everyone!
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