The Boy in Santa Marta

Beach in Santa Marta

The last couple of days, I’ve been thinking about a boy I met just over a year ago. We didn’t exchange anything like words, but there was another sort of exchange, one that is hard to describe. But I’ll try…

I’m sitting on the seawall of a Caribbean beach; not a fancy resort beach, but a public beach in the heart of the Santa Marta. It’s a gorgeous, glorious morning despite being as hot as hades, and I’m just feeling relieved it isn’t as blasting hot as yesterday – yet.

I’m alone because Brad is swimming. Various people wander by, and then this boy comes up and sits on the sand about ten feet away from me. He looks around 16 years old, and he’s truly dressed in rags. He’s as skinny and sick looking as some of the homeless dogs we’ve seen around, and almost as thin as the dead dog we passed on the street the day before, it’s ribs like hoops rising above its sinking body.

I am nervous. People who are desperate, do desperate things. People who are in pain, hurt others. I have a daypack that carries things this boy can sell to buy food, or drugs, or whatever he desires. All he has to do is grab it and run. No way can I stop him.

And then he looks right at me with the most haunted eyes I’ve ever seen. They simply defy description. A passage from Graham Greene’s book, The Quiet American, explains better than I can:

Suffering is not increased by numbers. One body can contain all the suffering the world can feel.

I simply can’t imagine the things this boy has gone through, the horrors he’s lived. I feel like my heart will break for him. I wish I had money to give him, but I’m not carrying any.

He motions to me, and I realize he’s asking for a drink from my water bottle. I toss it to him, and he gulps down about half of it, then carefully replaces the lid and goes to toss it back to me. I shake my head and motion that he finish it. He gives me a smile in thanks, then downs the rest. A minute later, he gets up, nods and smiles goodbye to me, and continues down the beach.

What I still don’t understand completely is why this encounter struck me so hard. Giving a homeless boy a bottle of water? It seems like nothing, and I’ve given to a lot of homeless people. Why does this time stand out?

I think it’s because of the exchange between us.

My gift to him was water and kindness and truly “seeing” him, and I believe he recognized and appreciated that.

His gift to me was a profound example of extreme courage, and a simply bizarre strength and resilience that left me in awe. So many of us in his situation would dissociate and go numb, or become bitter and hard. There was no numbness in his eyes. No bitterness. He was just quietly, openly bearing the pain in his life.

Even now, that encounter makes me cry. I hope and pray that his life is better now. I hope and pray that if it hasn’t gotten better, that he is strong enough to bear it. I know I’ll always be grateful for our encounter, and I’ll always remember him. True courage is a hard thing to forget.

The Indominable Power of Quiet Acts of Courage

I interviewed a woman last week, and WOW, was her story amazing. She is a lifetime volunteer, always giving, sometimes receiving, and so incredibly humble that she had a hard time reading the article that I wrote about her. One story she told really struck me:

She has volunteered for most of her life and continues to do so, but a compassionate act (to me, a form of volunteering) brought her to live on the island. She was part of the military, stationed in Ontario, when she heard of a single mother asking for help. The single mother, also in the armed forces, was about to be deployed to the west coast, and was desperately asking for a volunteer: would anyone trade postings with her so she could stay with her child and existing support system? The woman I interviewed volunteered to go in her stead, even though she was sacrificing her own home, her own connections and support system. Even though she had to leave a new relationship, a relationship that couldn’t overcome the distance between them.

This was told to me in her quiet voice like it was nothing, and it would have been easy to have taken the story in the way she presented it, like it was no big deal.

But it was a very big deal. That one act of compassion irreversibly changed the lives of at least three people in a massive way, and possibly four if you take the budding relationship into account.

In a world where the audacious gets the story, where the louder and more obnoxious the acts or words are, the more attention they get, I want to put her story forward.

Quiet acts of courage can change the world. None of us are powerless.

Week Three

This story has been popping back into my head a lot this week. It’s a true story, something that happened to my daughter/friend, Charity, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, something she helped make happen because she followed her intuition.

Homeless ManA year or so ago, Charity was finishing her last year of University. She’s also a mom with two young children, and like most young families, she and her husband struggled financially. One day while driving home from campus, feeling particularly grateful for the good things in her life, she saw an elderly homeless man pushing his belongings down the street in a shopping cart, and felt compassion for him. She had $60 in her wallet, and she wanted to give it to him.

However, since he was on the other side of the street, one of the busiest streets in Victoria at that time of day, she knew she’d have to double back, find parking, and then approach him on foot. It took her some time to get turned around during rush hour, and by the time she got back to where he’d been, he was gone.  She drove slowly along, hoping he hadn’t gone far. He hadn’t – but he was once again on the wrong side of the street!

Another lengthy exercise in patience as she turned around in traffic, and ten minutes later she was heading back to where she’d last seen him. Again, he seemed to have vanished – until she saw him disappearing into a driveway to an apartment building.

Determined now to chase him down on foot, she found parking at a nearby bank, and ran toward the apartment building – and there he was, already pushing his cart down the street away from her. She says she must’ve looked like a crazy woman running after him, money fluttering in her fist.

Finally, she caught him! “This is for you,” she said, and pushed the $60 toward him.

He didn’t even seem surprised. “You keep that money,” he told her kindly.

“You don’t want it? But… but don’t you need it?”

The old man chuckled. “No one knows what they need, and those who think they do are just fooling themselves.” Then he patted her arm. “Pass your good deed onto another. And have a nice day.” He smiled as he turned back to his shopping cart, and walked away.

I’m not drawing any conclusions from this story or trying to pin down why it’s sticking in my mind this week. I’m just sitting with it, in gratitude, thinking of the power of Charity’s experience. There are so many awesome lessons in it: following intuition, showing compassion, thinking outside the box, being persistent, not being afraid to do something unusual and different, accepting the wisdom gifts of others, and on and on and on.

Interesting, multifaceted life learning – the best kind.