This Man: Lessons from the Homeless

It was a regular weekday morning and I was excited that I had a couple hours to spare before my next meeting.  When I considered all the ways I could spend my time, the first and most gratifying option was to eat. I chose McDonald’s because it was nearby.  Pancakes and sausage, here I come!

About thirty minutes in, I was in my zen mode.  I was savoring every bite of those syrup-drenched pancakes and being super productive by responding to emails from my laptop. Eating and working – it was the perfect set-up. And because the restaurant wasn’t crowded with customers, I was able to focus more comfortably without distractions.

Until a man walked in and distracted me.

I saw him from the corner of my eye. He was clearly in an impoverished state: His clothes were dingy. His face hadn’t been shaved. When he walked past me, he looked my way and gave me a head nod to indicate a hello.  I verbally said hello back, but my one-word response was meant to be the end of our interaction. Him choosing to sit in the booth right beside me told me otherwise.

I tried to ignore him. I tried to appear busy so that he’d get the hint. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough, because within a moment of sitting down, he said, “Excuse me, ma’am. Could you -”

He didn’t finish his sentence.  The attempted connection was over, and I knew why.  As soon as I heard words come from his mouth, I took a deep sigh, rolled my eyes, and gave him the worst I’m-not-interested-in-your-life stare.  I knew that’s what my face read, because rather than finishing his sentence, he simply said, “Nevermind.  Thank you.”

I slowly turned back to my laptop screen and felt an immediate pang in my chest.  What did I just do? I thought. Did I just demonstrate to this man that I have ice running through my veins? Yes, I surely did.   I’m a monster.

It wasn’t as if I didn’t know what he wanted.  I knew he was looking for some spare change or something. In the moment, though, I just didn’t feel like being gracious, and to prevent any guilt, I shooed him away with my coldness.  But this man is a human being, just like me, and he didn’t deserve that. Great job, Elana. Now I feel terrible.

I turned back towards him with a much softer approach. “Yes, sir? Were you going to ask me something?” I knew I was inviting any request he had although I didn’t have much to give. The least he deserved was my attention.

“I was just going to ask if you could buy me a small cup of coffee.  That’s all I wanted.  I didn’t mean to bother you.”

That’s it? Just a small cup of coffee? I gave him coldness when all he wanted was some warm coffee.  I knew I had to right my wrong.  So, I bought him a full meal to go with his coffee.

He sat and ate in the booth beside me. Although nearby, I felt worlds apart from him. Regardless, we had a  conversation where he told me he is waiting on housing and that he’s tired of living like this. It broke my heart listening to him share from his.

Tired of living like this. Our reference of the phrase “like this” may be totally different, but I could certainly connect to the sentiment of being over it – whatever IT is. Before we parted, I reached out my hand and introduced myself.  He told me his name was Royce.

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I believe that every situation we encounter is a lesson to learn, and Royce taught me no different. This man. This man with no home and no peace reminded me of the disparities between us.  I don’t have to think about food or a place to rest my head, but he does.  Getting “full” is easy access for me.  For him, it’s a daily struggle. That alone should be enough to pause me from my comfortable life and, at minimum, listen to him with compassion- to let him know that we do indeed have a connection: Humanity.

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Elana Cole is a writer, educator, and professional coach who is passionate about helping others in their personal journeys towards a more beautiful life. She is the author of "The Midnight Experience" and creator of Empowered Narrative, a blog about transforming the way you live and love.

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