The drunken man approaches me as I leave the convenience store. My first thought is he has been drunk a long, long time. Much longer than since he has had a bath, which, if you’d been there, you would agree had been way too long. He’s trembling. He’s malnourished. I’m reminded that the human body is truly a prodigious machine, given what it can withstand without falling down dead on the spot.
He asks if I have a cigarette, and I say “no.” He asks if I’ll buy him a beer, and I tell him that I wouldn’t feel good about helping him be more intoxicated. He accepts my answer. Then he begins to weep. And for the next few minutes, he speaks of an aloneness and misery so stark, so complete, well, it’s not easy to behold.
His poverty — physical, psychological, spiritual — is matched by the poverty of my response. All I have in my pockets is empathy and a word of hope that he might seek help. “Thank you for being nice to me,” he says, and then shambles away.
I rather enjoy random encounters with human beings. I pay attention to these encounters. Some part of me is always ready for those encounters to have meaning. Maybe profound meaning. It comes from the way my mother raised me. From watching her. I translated a message from her that goes something like, “No one doesn’t matter.”
Then there was my maternal grandmother, an Anglo-Catholic, who wrapped that same message theologically. She was keen to remind me that I might be “entertaining angels unaware.”
The last piece I added on my own. I pay attention to otherwise random encounters not merely because I might have the opportunity to be of service or even change a life, but because I might, too, be changed by the encounter. And I like changing. I like it when people interrupt my ways of thinking and being and thereby open my life to possibilities heretofore unimagined and unexplored.
Take patients in therapy, for example. I already admire them, am predisposed to like them, simply because they have found the courage to be here at all. To scratch and claw for the truth. Fundamentally, the truth about themselves, lovely and unlovely.
Do I change the lives of people in therapy? Well, yes. Often enough to have a job, anyway. But what my patients don’t know is how often they change my life, in small and sometimes big ways. When they walk in the door, my preferred way of thinking about our meeting is to tell myself we were supposed to meet. That what appears random might not be so random. The meeting is not, then, a machination of a pingpong ball lottery machine; rather, a drama. A stage on which people open themselves to the opportunity to be … something else. Something more.
I call the sofa store because I’ve forgotten the dimensions of the sofa that will be delivered to my house this weekend. The Sofa Lady is curt, impatient and grouchy about my request to look up the ticket and tell me the dimensions. Instead of kicking her butt — tempting, to be sure — I decide to ooze gratitude. I “one-down” myself, telling her I’m sorry to be such a nuisance. The tactic works. By the time the call is over, she’s in stellar “customer service” mode. Gracious and appreciative. She wants to know if there’s anything else she can do. It’s fun to maneuver an antagonist into a friend. Especially when she has no idea that’s what just happened.
No one doesn’t matter. You never know when you might entertain an angel. You never know when the answer to your most pressing question will come in the form of some stranger who crosses your path.
Human beings know themselves chiefly by opening themselves to one another. Chance meetings might or might not be chance. It behooves us to pay attention.
1991. My then-wife, great with our firstborn, walks with me in downtown Phoenix. Standing next to us is an elderly American Indian man, wearing enough turquoise and silver bling to be his own walking, talking tourist gift shop. He nods at the round belly. “It’s a girl,” he says, like he has looked into the future and knows. I have goose bumps. Ooh.
Jonathan was a boy. Hmm. It turns out that not every random encounter has profound meaning. Not every encounter shifts the course of destiny.
But still, the next encounter might.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.