It has been two years and five months since I left my social work position. During that time I have learned a good deal. I have been exposed, thoroughly exposed, to perspectives of the world that I had only viewed from a distance. Economics, business, profit margins, investment, and competitive landscapes are the coin of the realm in that world.
I have spoken with countless people on the phone involved in various aspects of “industry.” A few have helped keep my faith in humanity alive. They have stretched out a hand to me. They have shared their experience. Often they cited the awareness that, “Someone else helped me. Today, I have a chance to help you.” And they do. They choose to be generous with their time which in corporate accounting may value one of their hours at more than the value of my whole day. Sometimes I hear a wise humility. Other times a calm self assuredness. Other times there is brusqueness. A few value themselves and their time as outweighing the responsibility to treat me as a human being.
In short it is a microcosm of all of the complexities of the world. It is not my contact with this “new world” that is the source of my interior turmoil. I feel like a traitor because commuting, fatigue, child care, work and inertia have made it easy to stay away from something. Something that I never wanted to lose contact with. Something that shaped who I am and laid the foundation for my view of the world: people living at the bottom of our social order.
Some people will tell you they saw the face of Jesus in some of the people they served. I can’t say I ever saw the face of Jesus on anyone, but I did experience community. I realized the limits and possibilities of personal responsibility as well as the joys and burdens of brotherhood.
Sitting with a schizophrenic in a basement drop in center while she was dressed in a duck suit and smelling of urine is not something you easily forget, and she is not someone who can fail to change you. I remember her furtive glance at the others drinking their coffee. Some huddling over garbage bags holding their belongings. Many wore stained and torn clothing. She gave me a fleeting smile and a quick hug that stayed with me in many ways through the morning.
I worked for months with another man struggling in the initial stages of HIV and some dementia. Memory, emotion, and routine swirled. How long had his life meandered? He told me that I was an angel sent by God to help him get better. Who was I to say that I wasn’t sent for that purpose? He believed it.
In the midst of these men and women, I was continually reminded of hope. Was it the life in the midst of all the supposed problems? Was it the laughter even without a car or a home? Was it the thank you for a simple cup of coffee and a short conversation? I don’t know.
Ironically, driving to work and going to the grocery store sometimes I lose that a little bit. I slip back into the self-contained circle of myself and my family. I try to remember to smile at a stranger and to reach out to my friends. Why does it always seem like there is too much to do?
Tonight I met friends at Humble wine bar in the short window of time after work and just before the kid’s bed time. The available time was short for a drink and an appetizer. When I arrived they had already been there for some time. One was returning to medical school. Another spoke of the excitement and opportunity at a new job while a third spoke of labor abuses and fair trade. I had to ask as my heart stirred, “Do you still think you can have a meaningful job and change the world?”
They all said yes. They said it without pretense, irony, or mockery. It was a delightful moment in the short evening.
I called my wife, and the boys weren’t in bed yet.
I decided I did not want to miss putting them to bed. I hurried out to the car smiling. I moved quickly toward the side door of the house. I bounded up the steps and heard Charlie running to meet me at the door. I drank in his greeting and smile while tasting the exotic euphoria of that rare elixir- HOPE.