“We human beings are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason, it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationship with others.”
-Dalai Lama XIV
Shawn came into my life in a rather unusual way. I was in my vehicle talking on the phone to my sister while waiting to meet my brother at my former high school. He approached me and asked me for money. He was quick to tell me that he does not use alcohol or drugs. Many thoughts came to mind as the next few seconds passed. I knew that I only had $2 in my pocket as I failed to stop at the bank on my way to my destination. I was planning to have an evening meal with my brother but credit cards make carrying cash almost unnecessary nowadays. I wanted to help but thought that any amount of money was only going to be a temporary solution. I considered my location in the parking lot of St. Ignatius High School. The opening line of the prayer of St. Ignatius says, “Lord, teach me to be generous.” I reached into my pocket and handed him the $2 and apologized that I did not have more to give. Shawn, being homeless and industrious, had a better idea. Could I come with him to the local Wendy’s and use my credit card to buy him something to drink. It was both an invitation and a challenge to move me beyond my sheltered existence. I was called.
As we waited in line, we began to talk. The conversation was stilted and filled with generalizations. As a physician, I felt compelled to work on gaining his trust so that we could have a meaningful interaction. While trust normally takes time, I believe that we underestimate the power of love in the development of trust. I could give of myself to him as another human being and validate his person-hood. Trust follows quickly. At that point, I drew on the insight of my colleagues in the realm of emotional health. Rather than thinking about the question, “What’s wrong with you?” I asked Shawn a different question, “What happened to you?” At that point, Shawn told me that he was the youngest child of 13. He said that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. His next sentence came almost as quickly. He told me that he had been raped by his brother. He went on to say that he was homeless despite his many sibling because his “drinking” made him the black sheep of the family. However, he was beaming when he told me that he had been sober for 3 years with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous (this conversation all happened before we even got to the checkout counter). He proceeded to ask me if I would be willing to buy him two $10 gift cards along with the drink. I was glad he asked. I invited him to sit and talk for a few minutes. He gladly accepted.
At that point, our conversation changed. We talked about our children, our education, our former jobs, and our hopes for the future. He wondered what he did to deserve the childhood trauma inflicted on him. He told me what it was like to be homeless. He noted that “it wasn’t that bad.” I hesitated because so many moralistic value judgments pervade the mind in unusual circumstances. I was certainly in that state at that moment. Being fifth in line of seven, I have a tendency to speak first and think later (for me, nothing gets in the way of wanting to be heard). However, I wanted him to speak first after his comments as a homeless man having endured multiple adverse childhood experiences. Shawn’s next comment left my life with his indelible mark. He said, “What I miss most is conversation like this.” It wasn’t about the money. My $23 ($2 cash, a $1 drink and $20 dollar gift cards) paled in comparison to my time. Interestingly, Shawn gave me more than I gave him. Was I going to seek more opportunities like this in my life? Am I going to listen better to those in need? Will I remember the fact that we are all social beings needing validation? First Shawn called me. Then he moved me. Will this move you too?