With hands loosely clasped in his lap, a sweaty empty beer bottle before him, the old man’s body telegraphs the enormous weight of the world resting on his worn down shoulders.
It is breakfast. My food, a couple of street tacos, sits in front of me on the wooden beam of an open-air restaurant along the Florida Keys. The day is beautiful.
Looking beside me I see the man take a penetrating breath – his eyes cast downward into his deeply tanned hands.
The moment proves that sitting a block from a crystal blue ocean does not necessarily guarantee happiness.
A good friend of mine once shared a powerful philosophy I continue to hold closely.
“Everyone,” he said, “has a story.”
“We need to make sure to never overly judge people unless we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. We really don’t know what happened to them yesterday, a week ago, or even 5-minutes ago.”
Afterwards, my friend sent me a link to a short video clip helped illustrate his theory. As random people entered the screen, words with a brief description of the challenges the individuals face overlay each.
Words along the lines of “can’t pay the rent this month” or “mother in the hospital” appear. Adults, as well as children, pass before the camera lens.
My friend’s lesson, many years later, continues to walk with me each day. No longer do I allow myself to cast early judgments or attitudes based solely on what my eyes superficially digest. While vision can absorb clues or potential indicators, to know the real story, a personal connection must be made.
A waitress stops by the old man’s place at the end of the banister. Another beer arrives, his head nodding in absent acknowledgment.
Looking around me, my wife sees the man. Looking at each other we find ourselves putting my friend’s works into play. And for both of us, we hurt for the man a the end of the banister.
In life, it is easy to cast judgments based on window dressings. A wrinkled shirt, worn shoes, or an odor as you walk by. For the old man, his unshaven face leathered skin, and stained clothes hint of a life we couldn’t understand. The weight of the world – his world – appears to be nearly unbearable.
As the waitress clears away our breakfast, I slip away to pay the bill. Returning to the outside banister I find my wife speaking with the man, now readying for his next morning beer.
She speaks to him, breaking the fog of his thoughts and mental wandering.
Reaching for his beer, he answers. He’s kind and soft-spoken. Life, however, is difficult.
In life, as my friend taught me, people in pain are everywhere. Some speak out while others internalize their feelings – as if retreating will deflect the pain or struggles they face. But as an outsider, all we have are surface clues.
We may never know his full story, but at least he’ll know someone cares enough notice.