Thursday, August 16, 2012
Tell Someone They Matter
I talked to a 60 year old homeless man who, I am very sure, will die alone on the street if there isn't some miracle in his life. He doesn't have a life threatening disease, he is not going to starve to death tonight. He smokes too much and has had skin cancer but that will take years to kill him. It's the slow decay of homelessness that is going to take his life. A gradual wearing away of his organs from nights on the street, poor diet, alcoholism, smoking and, most importantly, no real reason to keep living beyond the instinct to breathe in and out.
Courtney has been living on the street for 30 years. He has no direction and no idea how to live any other kind of life.
But he told me that the only way to heave was to accept Jesus as your lord and savior and let him guide your steps. I smiled and said, "I know." I wondered what that meant to a man with a joint in one hand and a gatorade bottle filled with beer in the other. I have no doubt that he loves Jesus and wants to live a "good life." He smiles at the people driving by. He doesn't steal or fight. He doesn't take welfare because he doesn't want to live off the government. He laughs with embarrassment when he refills his gatorade bottle and doesn't meet my eyes. There's a paradox in his face, a pride that says "I know what's right," and a shame that admits, "I don't know how to do it." I know the feeling.
I asked him what it was like growing up. He told me he was in and out of foster care until he was 13, when he ran away.
Now I'm not going to play a blame game because we all make our own choices and Courtney is no saint. But I know that a 13 year old doesn't know that he matters unless someone tells him he does. He doesn't know how to respect or take care of himself unless someone teaches him. And I know a the 20 year old learns from the 13 year old and the 30 year old learns from the 20 year old and so on until finally, someone drives by a 60 year old man holding a cardboard sign and, without malice, wonders, "Why can't he get a job?" "Why can't he stop drinking/getting high?"
Because he never learned how.
How do you help a person like this? I don't know. Maybe it's too late, maybe all you can do is smile at him. Maybe his highest hope is that he can ride the soft edge of alcohol and marijuana until he dies. I have no idea how to tell a 60 year old man that he matters, that there are people who love him enough to want him to have a better life. I don't know how to tell him that, because its not true now, is it?
I want to say that I care about him. After all, didn't I bring him baloney because he said its his favorite? I gave him a $10 bill and some sunscreen to show him that I do care. But I am going home in a few days and I'm going to forget about Courtney. I'm going to walk out of his life just like every other person has. I don't know how to help him so I'm going to put him out of my mind like his ex wives and his estranged kids. Next week, Courtney is going to still believe in the deepest and most untouchable places of his heart that he doesn't matter and he's going to continue living his life the same way he has lived it for the past 60 years.
I don't know if you can help this man, maybe someday he'll find a new way to live. But I know with absolute certainty that somewhere very close to where you're sitting is a 13 year old boy who doesn't know that he matters.
And I know that you still have time to change his mind.