Many years ago, when I was in my 20s, I had an encounter that made an impression on me. One that changed me and made me realize the power of presence and how we are each part of a larger, spiritual family. Here is that story.
The day-long conference had been uplifting. Spiritual speakers. Healing energies. Positive thoughts. I walked from the hotel into the dark of the city. And into a relentless, monsoon-like rain. I had blocks to go before reaching the parking garage.
As I scurried down the dimly-lit street, wind and rain buffeting my umbrella, a bundle heaped against the wall snagged the corner of my vision. What was it? I hesitated and glanced. It wasn’t a “what” but a “who” — a person, hunched in the downpour. A woman.
She was one of the many homeless in the city and my heart dropped to my knees. Should I help her? What should I do? What could I do? She was drenched. But I had just left a workshop about loving others, about helping the world become a better place. Shouldn’t I do something?
I stood there, momentarily paralyzed, the urge pulling me to ask her how I could help against my own better sense to keep moving. And then, as I stood there, a car pulled up to the curb. A couple got out. They asked the woman if she was OK. They had sandwiches and hot coffee. Could they take her somewhere, to a shelter where she would be dry and safe?
I watched for a few minutes as the woman shook her head. She seemed to want to stay there, although they kept pleading with her to come with them. But she took the food. And they gave her blankets and an umbrella.
I turned and continued walking to my car, a mix of deep emotions. I was touched by the compassion and courage of the couple who had stopped and asked this woman if she needed help, and I was ashamed that I had not. These many years later, I regret not acting.
What stopped me? In hindsight and all honesty — fear. Fear of the unknown, of my safety, of what I might be called on to do. Decades later, this particular woman has stayed with me and hopefully I have gained some wisdom since that experience.
As a journalist, I went on to write articles about the homeless and after interviewing them I discovered this: They feel invisible and they want to be seen. They want their presence to be acknowledged, even if it is a simple “Hello. How are you today?” Instead, they have watched many of us walk by in discomfort. When we see them on city streets we rush by because it dredges up many issues — judgment, guilt for not doing more, not wanting to become involved and also the frightening reality, “This could be me.”
The truth is, it is you. And me.
That rainy night I indeed could have acted. I could have offered not money — not even my umbrella — but something even more powerful, the gift of acknowledging that woman’s presence as another human being, as a sister made in the image of the Divine, as I am.
Life will always give those moments that will test our spiritual center. It’s never an easy call. I’m sure each of us has had this inner struggle, seeing someone in need and gauging it against our safety. Or wondering how much we should extend ourselves. Sometimes common sense should and will prevail. And sometimes we will act with courage, no matter the cost.
But those moments — however they present themselves — will draw from the deepest parts of our being as to how we are living our lives. They will help us see our rough edges and where we need to soften. Those moments will help us grow. And deepen.
Most of us all, if we are open, they help us see ourselves in one another. And witness the presence of love in the face of another. No matter the guise.