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. My heart breaks 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 sad. I hope and pray that his life is better now, or 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.