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We pass many in our life, but if we stop to address the horror instead of recoiling from it, then the lessons we can glean are lasting.
He has worn cowboy boots and a cowboy hat every day of his life. He may have ridden a horse a few times as a kid, but most of his life has been lived simply here in this small town. He rode his bike for many years, but now walks because his knees are bad. But I love a man who allows himself some personal romance. He is also an unapologetic sloppy eater. Food and food stains on his shirt and at the corner of his mouth every day.
Very few know how exquisitely sensitive he is, Jacob’s emotional IQ is as high as the Himalayas. The other day he told me that if people are overly critical of him, he just stops paying attention to them. Then he said something wise and a little heartbreaking: “Sometimes I think I should pay better attention (to his critics) just in case they may say something useful.” In a world where most are trying to place themselves higher than others on the status ladder, Jacob is mostly ignored, or pitied, because he never bothered to find the ladder or knew such a sad thing was available to climb.
We became friends in church when I got angry at a couple of people for him. I noticed many were treating him as a four-year-old kid and watched him closely enough to know he understood what was going on. A non-complainer like Jacob, even those assigned to care for him do a less than stellar job, because they know his voice, even when he uses it, does not count.
He was raised to have very good manners and would never admit to being angry but when I told him I would talk to a social worker for him who was not keeping him informed about a new apartment, he told me to, “Give her hell for me.”
Jacob is probably my most loyal friend. Through my church, I have been doing a Sunday homeless feed here in the valley for at least two years. Jacob has been with me almost every week and, while others in my church may kick in some money now and again, not one person has shown up to help since the first week. That frustrated me for a while, simply because service has softened my heart so profoundly and made me a much kinder person.
In other words, there are probably people in your life you see every day, but don’t really see or know at all…
Jacob loves his family but I think feels the wound from parents who wanted normal children and therefore could not appreciate the uniqueness of a son like him. “They wanted me to be more like my sister but I never was,” he said. Architecture, history and time travel are among Jacob’s many interests; he is also a pretty fair painter.
I know my stories can make me look saintly and everyone else to be a heartless bastard, which is far from the case on both accounts. I was on the margins for many years on the streets and know the heartbreak of being unseen and unheard. What I am saying as you go out into the fields each day in pursuit of your happiness, look out there at the edge of the crops; there may be some plants withering a bit and in need of the waters of tenderness. In other words, there are probably people in your life you see every day, but don’t really see or know at all. I am suggesting you take the time to befriend them; you both will feel less lonely and, isn’t that the idea here?
My interactions with my mum are much less emotionally volatile for me as of late. My main concern is more with her mental/spiritual health than with her physical health, and I have seen some growth in both of us. The idea is: as the emotions heal, so will the body.
I tended to bury my anger with her for most of my life as it just seemed unsafe. Then, when I finally allowed myself to show my anger, it could be very heated indeed. Now the truths I have to tell her come without malice or resentment. I imagine this makes it much easier for her to absorb what I have to say.
I was worrying the other day that maybe the emotional rewards of her being sick were greater than if she was healthy. If I am healthy, will the help and the nurturing go away?
I also noticed a tendency in her not to make any decisions in her life. The doctors and us, the family, seem to make many decisions and do things for her that I believe she could do for herself. This was standard operating procedure for me most of my life, by the way, until I found some healing on the streets. The anxiety of making mistakes or choosing poorly was just too strong.
I chatted with her about some of this recently. She readily admitted that it was possible she did not want to make decisions.
I said, “You have never seemed to have trouble making decisions for me.”
She laughed and acknowledged it, saying, “Well, that is human nature.”
Also on The Big Smoke
- Four lessons on empathy I learned from four complete strangers
- Shame: A puddle that skews your reflection
Her over-functioning on my decisions as a child made it harder for me to trust my thinking and decision-making as an adult. Her parents may have been the same way, I know she went to boarding school in Spokane against her will and was later kicked out. I believe smoking was the reason, although I think she and the nun agreed it would be best that she left.
I do homeless outreach here in town and many of my mum’s friends see me as some kind of shining light. The outreach from my perspective, since I was homeless myself, is just me making friends.
My mum told me, “You’re a good man,” at some point in the conversation. Then, typically, “Do I get any credit for that?”
I said, “Well, you know, how much do you want and how much do you take already?”
It was a surprisingly light and tender moment between us. I have enough confidence these days that her wanting to steal some of my accomplishments seems kind of normal and human.
I am starting to understand illness, both emotional and physical, as simply a cry for love at some level. I can feel this coming from my mum at times; that ache to be loved, despite your many faults. I am doing the best I can. The greatest lesson I learned on the streets is that no matter how much I hate myself at times, to always be a source of my own love.
The ego has strategies for defence, like withholding and blaming others. I still have a little of that in me, no doubt, but the more unconditionally I love myself, the easier it is to love others who are crying out for it, including my mum.