I had a powerful experience this morning in a Starbucks in Niagara Falls, Canada.
I sat in my car enjoying the overnight oats that I made the day before, in front of the Starbucks where I intended to set up to prepare for a meeting later in the morning. My mind was full of concerns: was there a supercharger nearby? did I have change to leave a tip at the counter? Did I pack my charging cable or did I forget it in my rush?
I thought these were serious concerns. I was wrong.
As I left my car, a man of short stature approaced me and inquired about my car. He was scruffy-looking and shuffled along, pushing his cart full of scrap metal. He was knowledgeable about cars and asked me a lot of good questions about electrification.
Then he came into the Starbucks and was chatting with customers. He made pleasant conversation, was witting and engaging despite his dirty sweatshirt and face that wore the lines that come of a lifetime of care and worry. He came over to me and started talking about his life, how he was born in San Francisco of a mother from Nova Scotia and an American father. How his father was an alcoholic who gave booze when he was in grade six until he was drunk and his father could joke about his antics. He told me about his successful first life as a truck driver, but how his best friend who owned a bar pressured him into moving from alcoholism to smoking marijuana and then crack cocaine.
As he told me his story, his face softened and changed. I saw hints of a lifetime of pain, rejection and neglect emerge during the long pauses he took when telling me his story. After a while, he went off to use the lavatory.
A minute or two after his entry into the lavatory, two large police officers came. They knocked on the washroom doors until he opened. They were kind, but firm. They searched the washroom for drugs and found nothing. They asked him if he was carrying drugs and he said no, that he was clean. Then they kindly and firmly escorted him out of the Starbucks.
He came back in after a few minutes and gently, in a quiet voice, claimed discrimination to the Starbucks employee working the counter. He asked him if it was him who called the police and the employee say yes, he had. He asked him why and the employee told him was blocking the door, disturbing customers.
Then the man left. He stood by the window and signalled to me to come out and chat. I did. He told me his name was Jack. That’s when he told me the rest of his story. He told me of methadone clinics and his daily struggle to find a warm place to sleep. He told me that the hardest thing about being homeless, and addicted to drugs, and HIV-positive, and Hep-C positive was that he couldn’t find anyone with whom to have a conversation.
We chatted for many minutes more. He told me that he went to a Catholic high school and finished college. He went to Brock for a year. He had been married, but didn’t have any kids. He wished that he had learned a second language, preferably French.
Then I had to go and get ready for my meeting. I settled into my writing at the Starbucks.
He came back after a while and the Starbucks employees let him use the washroom. He left alone.
This man was alone. He was just over a year older than me. He wouldn’t live for too much longer. He longed to be included and accepted. He longed for a quiet, warm place to sit and read a magazine. He longed for a wooden floor, rather than linoleum. He longed for a caring conversation.
I firmly believe that we are judged by how we treat those who have little, who struggle, who face trouble. Neither the Starbucks employees nor the police treated this man badly. Rather, they were quite gentle with him.
It is our society that has failed him. We have failed him.
The human heart is broken through rejection and loneliness. When we are hurt we cry out to others. We hurt ourselves, sometimes very grievously. We do embarrassing things. We are out of control.
None of this is strange. It’s just human.
We all live and walk a few steps from when Jack now lives. We have all felt moments in our lives when we teetered on the precipice of committing dangerous, destructive or self-destructive acts. What held us back was, for some of us, our will, but most of us were saved by our support system: family, friends, neighbourhood.
Imagine you had none of those supports around you when felt most blue or desperate. Worse, imagine those people around you were chaotic and destructive themselves. What a different path your life could have taken.
You could easily have been Jack.
It is time to cast aside the fallacy that each person is fully responsible for their outcome. Rather, it is time to take responsibility for our neighbours. The answers can’t be just hand-waving.
We must commit to building a more loving society in which people are supported through their troubles, not cast away like a tool that has lost its usefulness.
People aren’t tools. We are not the sum of our choices or actions. We are not the sum of what we own or earn.
We are just human.
We are fragile and we seek, above all else, to be loved, to be included. We long to be able to say to someone else “I am grateful for your kindness”, because then we have the warm feeling of someone having extended kindness to us.
Remember, included doesn’t mean equal. It just means a society that says: “you are welcome here” and “we cared for you”.
We aren’t even doing that right now.
We need to be a society where Jack, who asks for so little, can have a warm place to sleep on New Year’s Eve.
Think about that as you usher in 2019 tonight. Think about how we can build a better, more human society where weakness is not reviled or punished.
A society where we can all feel included and feel truly human.
PS – The magic of this is that when we include others, we feel safer and more included ourselves. It isn’t a cost, it’s a benefit.