Feast of Dignity

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“We all belong here equally…Just by being born onto the earth we are accepted and the earth supports us. We don’t have to be especially good. We don’t have to accomplish anything. We don’t even have to be healthy.” – Polly Horvath, My One Hundred Adventures

Remember the anticipation of your first day of school? Parents and teachers offered encouragement and reassurance by cheerfully talking about all the opportunities to make new friends. Did you ever move to a different neighborhood or change jobs? I imagine that questions of finding welcoming neighbors or fitting in with your new colleagues crossed your mind during your transition. These thoughts are likely due to the fact that human beings have a psychological need for love and belonging. In humanistic psychology, the human need for belonging aligns with our inclinations as social creatures. Our emotional relationships are driven by our connections among our family, as well as social and community groups. And sometimes, we have the fortune of being a bystander to the fulfillment of this need of belonging and the nurturing of the soul…

Finally! Lunch time arrived after a long morning of training. Three of my colleagues and I tried to decide on a place to eat among the wide variety of options on Restaurant Row. Fortunately, there was something for each of us. One of my colleagues chose savory Mexican food while another was in the mood for an acai bowl with lots of fruity goodness. My third colleague and I chose a popular Chinese restaurant with lots of tasty options to satisfy our hunger. We agreed that we would all meet in the Chinese restaurant to eat as there were several tables available.

Upon getting in line to order our food, I took notice of a man standing in line third from the end. He caught my attention because he looked so terribly sad and uncomfortable in line. His eyes shifted from person to person to see if anyone was looking at him.  However, everyone appeared to be enjoying their lunch breaks from the surrounding office buildings as indicated by their slacks, pencil skirts, button down shirts, or dresses and busy conversations about work or preoccupations with cell phones. His energy of loneliness loomed heavily amid the busy-ness of the space. Somehow I sensed that he was hoping that no one would notice his slouching shoulders, disheveled appearance and the way he clutched a half empty bag of chocolate puff cereal. I concluded that this man was struggling in a way that he was not accustomed to existing.

As I made my way through the line selecting entrees and side dishes, my heart couldn’t ignore that tug of compassion toward the lonely man. I wondered where he had gone. Then I noticed him sitting alone with only a small beverage and that half bag of cereal. In that moment I reasoned that he only had enough money to buy that small drink. I felt compelled to purchase a gift card for him thinking he’s likely very hungry.

As I approached him, I searched for the right words to say. This was not a gesture of charity. This was not a Random Act of Kindness to check off a “good-deed-done” list. It wasn’t even about helping this man. To be quite honest, I wasn’t quite sure what it was all about. All I knew was that my intention felt different from other times that I done the very same thing. I knew I didn’t want to add shame or embarrassment by asking him, “When was your last meal?” or “Are you hungry?” So I simply asked what I might have asked anyone else in the restaurant. “Do you come here very often?”

 He replied, “No.”

“Well, I have a gift card for you if you ever come back here again.” I discretely place the card on the table as he quietly said, “Thanks.”

I walked away silently wishing him well  and proceeded to a table to rejoin the busy-ness by eating a hurried lunch, engaging in conversation with my colleagues about the training and discussing how we can apply it to our work as instructional coaches. Unbeknownst to me, the connection established between me and the lonely man created a portal to glimpse the inner workings of the human spirit. From my seat, I happened to see the man slowly get back in line with the gift card in hand. What I witnessed and experienced next has changed me.

As he inched his way to the front of the line, something was happening to him. With every choice of food item, this man transformed from somber to joyful, from uncomfortable to owning his space. He literally stood taller and skipped sideways along the glorious window of food choices much like a child in the aisles of a toy store. He proudly paid for his lunch and joined the busy-ness.  He neatly arranged his plate, napkin, utensils, and small drink. With a smile, he stared at his food for a moment before digging in. His delight could hardly be contained as he practically danced in his seat with every bite of food. He was no longer the man I saw just a few moments earlier.

The blessing was indeed mine. This man taught me a deeply profound lesson of acceptance and the embrace of all others. Each and every one of us yearns to be seen for who we are at the core of our existence. And it is in this core where we find that which binds us to each other. It is where we find all that we share and have in common. I realize now that my very simple gesture was all about seeing myself in this man who by appearance alone seemed worlds apart from my life. He didn’t need my help. Afterall, once the meal was over, what would he have been left with in the end? He was hungry to be seen. The once sad and lonely man ascended to the collective “we.” The energy coming from him now screamed, “I belong!” You see, there was no “we” in that shared space as long as he was not a part of it.

 I wept through the rest of my lunch that day. My colleagues gracefully accepted my simple and watered down version of the cause for my tears. Though I sat with them for that meal, in reality, I mindfully shared a feast of gratitude with a dignified man.

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