Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Napkin Notes #5: The art of seeing past the man in order to observe the person

“The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost.” – Gilbert K. Chesterton 

I’m intrigued about people. I’ve always been. When I get to know someone, it borders on being slightly intrusive while maintaining a veneer of voracious curiosity.  People compel me. They can be distracting, befuddling, irresistible, cantankerous, discursive or polemic. There’s always something exacting about someone and I’ve learned to discover lots about a person from the best gumshoe who never lived- Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes was created in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887. One of the riveting things about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s remarkable protagonist must be the fact that he was based on an actual person–Dr. Joseph Bell, who was Doyle’s old teacher when he was still in Medical School. A short excerpt from A Scandal in Bohemia will illustrate what I have come to love about people-watching.
Holmes: “…You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up to this room.”
Dr. Watson: “Frequently.”
Holmes: “How often?”
Dr. Watson: “Well, some hundreds of times.”
Holmes: “Then how many are there?”
Dr. Watson: “How many! I don’t know.”
Holmes: “Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen.”
We see people everywhere but we seldom observe. The homeless are arguably some of the most invisible members in society. If I had to ask myself why, perhaps it might have to do with feeling uneasy (Oh uh, he’s going to ask me for money!) mixed with self-righteousness (Well, why isn’t he working like everyone else?), a tiny bit of sympathy (How long has he not eaten?) and a whole carking stockpot of quasi-guilt-slash-helplessness (Well, God, what do you expect me to do, give him money so he’ll get more liquor? Drugs?!) The above palaver was brought to you by a weak generalization of such stereo-types in our society. I too, stand convicted and guilty. I see homeless people but I don’t know how to, or dare approach someone because I don’t know what he or she may need specifically from me.

“Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection,and take delight in honoring each other.” -Romans 12:9-10

One evening while entering a noshery for dinner, I couldn’t have missed seeing Daniel (not his real name) sitting by the front door. If I had, I’m quite sure I would’ve tripped over him, and hurled myself headlong into the fengshui fishtank neatly placed in my flight path. There was something about Daniel that betrayed his grimy exterior that nagged at me throughout my meal. I felt as if God was compelling me to take note of something truly important and if I don’t stop to understand this person, I was going to miss a valuable lesson.

There was a person not-so-hidden behind the man.
In the twenty minutes I took to listen to Daniel’s story, I observed two different persons emerge. Daniel was injured while at work in a construction site, whose life unravelled when he could not work, who didn’t blame his wife taking their young son away because he was suffering from depression followed by alcoholism and other –isms which hastened his crow-on-a-wire look and lifestyle.
The skeptical woman in me warned not to be taken in by his sob story. I wasn’t sure how to react to what he was telling me, so I simply asked God to show me what he needed, despite the obvious and the not-so obvious. As Daniel talked, I listened and as I looked, truly looked, (which meant sitting on the floor with him) some things became quite evident.

He wore his hair neatly, even though it was long.
He wrote his name on his clothes, his duffel bag and on the few belongings he had.
He kept pulling back his shoulder periodically and held his stomach in a painful way several times as he spoke.
He had curried stains on his tee-shirt and a brown paper bag of what smelled like curry beside him.
When I asked if I could pray for him, I took a small leap of faith to pray for the things I thought he needed.

1. I thanked the Lord for him, and that by his own admission, God loves him and still has a good plan for his life. Praise God he had remained sober the last two months.
2. I said his name several times and prayed for his wife and son by name.
3. I laid my hands on where I felt he hurt most and prayed for his injuries to heal including what I believed was an upset stomach.
Immediately, Daniel told me about the curry a family had left for him the night before but he had gotten a stomach ache from it. From where I stood, it reeked from not being refrigerated. I ended our time together by handing him my uneaten spring rolls (and chucking the rancid curry). He accepted it but what did Daniel need specifically from me? The last thing he thanked me for was calling out his name. He had forgotten when the last time was someone called him by his name.
The first person who emerged changed was Daniel. The second person to come away changed was me. God sees Daniel and He simply wanted me to see his son as precious, someone who needed to be loved and honoured.

“Here is my secret. It is very simple. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” – Antoine St. Exupery, Le Petit Prince

Earlier this year I chanced to watch a movie called “Happy-Go-Lucky.” I like Mike Leigh’s Aesopian-type films, always insightful, polymorphous and chock-a-block full of real human sentiments. (Secrets and lies, Vera Drake, to name a couple. ) The story revolves around Pauline “Poppy” Cross, played by a nonplussed Sally Hawkins as an irenic 30- year old woman who sees the good in every person. One powerful scene that stood out for me was Poppy having a conversation with a batty homeless man in London, yaffing about “the rubber knocker man, she’s she’s she’s, she’s, ya know what I mean?” He definitely has a dozen bats in the belfry, but there’s a heartbeat of understanding from her, and she looks him in the eye and sincerely says, “Yeah, I do.”
All the punch from that scene was delivered in those three words where she simply connects with him before he goes off muttering to himself again. Sure it’s celluloid quirkiness at Mike Leigh’s braggable Golden Globe-winning best, but what the scene conveyed to me was how it impacted her.
Our hearts are fragile and myopic. Only when we focus outwardly to risk loving others will we be able to turn inward to see ourselves clearly in God’s grand scheme of things. God loves us whether we are tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man or mad man.

“Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.” – Mark 6:34

We are lost. Essentially, that’s how Jesus sees us. We are like a sheep without a shepherd. The lost cannot lead the way. Someone who knows the way must teach it and teach it, Jesus does, because His compassion drives him to love.

This month, as an act of love and healthy people-watching curiosity: Let’s observe our friends, our family; what they wear, what they talk about, what music they are listening to, how they react to things, to us and have a ball of a time deducing their unsaid (and often unmet) needs and offer to pray with them.