A few days ago, as I returned home one chilly, wet, late afternoon, a woman approached me for money on Upper Street. She was sitting on a stoop and shielding herself from the light rain with what had once been an umbrella and was now just a bit of black nylon over the few remaining unbroken metal ribs. The usual complicated thoughts went through my mind about whether to stop or to walk by feigning deafness… but I stopped this time… I gave her a pound and, uncharacteristically, I paused for a moment to talk with her. She was only too happy to share her story. A schizophrenic son was part of it. My nose told me that drink was also an issue.
The woman seemed plainly grateful that I had treated her like a human being and listened to her story rather than rushing by and desperately trying to avoid eye contact. This is not unfamiliar, as so many people are hungry simply to be treated with a bit of respect – the respect that we all deserve.
And, as is almost always the case in situations like this, I felt good too. I had been able to give someone something in addition to a coin – something that made her feel more valued and connected.
Don Marquis "MAR kwis", the American author and journalist, describes well the meaning and power that such moments can bring to us.
“There is nothing we like to see so much as the gleam of pleasure in a person's eye when he feels that we have sympathized with him, understood him. At these moments something fine and spiritual passes between two friends. These are the moments worth living.”
This was indeed such a moment. I felt lightened. The rain seemed more benevolent. The wind less threatening and more refreshing. Was it my imagination or had the clouds eased just a bit? My small burdens felt they had been lifted and I like to think that the woman’s great burdens were eased – even if just slightly.
And then I walked away. No obligations. Nothing expected in return. No complication. And I realized that the very fact that I could just walk away made this interaction much, much easier.
My dear friend Barbara sent me an email in 2006 and I’d like to share a bit of that with you. She writes:
[we are called upon] to fill in the gaps or make the mental corrections, or better, allowances, for people's gaps and deficits and missteps, or weirdnesses. It is easier to do with friends and strangers than with family, I think. I am incredibly accepting of strangers and patients. I yearn to reach out, to accept--hell!--to celebrate warts. I am still feeling good because of an interaction with a man changing the black trashbag at the oil barrel on Level 4 of [the car park] an hour ago. He looked up blankly and I smiled and he smiled and I said good morning and he did too. We were in this together.
Barbara’s email struck me and stuck with me tenaciously enough for me to remember and return to it after four years. There’s something about her keen way of seeing the world and capturing it that I always enjoy very much, and also, upon reading her words, her message resonated strongly with me.
William Blake observed “it is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” How can it be so? How can we offer more understanding and mercy to the one who wishes us ill than to one who is usually on our side? But this paradoxical comment by the great English poet has more than grain of truth.
Edna St. Vincent Millay put a similar sentiment in a more blunt – perhaps more American way when she said “I love humanity - but I hate people.”
I love humanity. There is so much of beauty and good within our human family. It is from us that the greatest of poetry has come with words that touch our hearts. It is from us that the beauty of music has come. It is from our minds that great inventions spring, and it is from our hands that the gifts of care and help are given.
Agate Nesaule writes “We have to believe that even the briefest of human connections can heal. Otherwise, life is unbearable.”
I know the truth behind her simple words. It is in our connections that we find compassion, care, kindness, and generosity. It is there that we feel the truly redeeming and healing power that is love. Moments of human connection come, and when they do, they have enormous power to change and strengthen us.
The sacredness in each of us can be revealed in the light of another. I have heard it said that the Hindu greeting – Namaste – means something like ‘the sacred in me recognises the sacred in you’. There are moments when this feels tangibly so.
How easy it is extol the wonders of humanity and to idealize the sacredness of our human interactions.
As Barbara says though, it can sometimes be easier to feel the joy of that connection with someone we know less well than with friends and family.
Being closer to another person – letting them past the armour – creates more opportunity for deep, meaningful, transformative connection. But it also opens us up to the kind of pain that Neil Gaiman’s character, Rose Walker, calls a “real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain.”
We are each home to a complexity that offers a splendour and beauty as wondrous as the warm, growing colours of a sun rise. And our complexity can also cloud the wonders that relationship can offer.
The paradox of our pain in closeness becomes more understandable when we recognize the role of expectation. I expected nothing from the woman on the street. Barbara expected nothing from the man changing the trashbag. Without expectations, the gift of kindness – the gift of a smile – the gift even of a simple greeting – feels to be a blessing from the generous heart of a benevolent universe.
We do not, however, live at a time or in a culture that encourages us to ease our expectations. Invariably, when we get closer to someone else, we start to expect more. We invest our time and our care, where is the pay-off? Following the materialistic way of life, we automatically expect that each payment should be accompanied by a reward. “Here’s my money, where’s my latte?” “Here’s my compassion, where’s my healing?” “I’m offering you love. Why aren’t you perfect?”
I want to suggest that the sacred return on investment in relationship requires a very different way of being and thinking. We heard Guy Finley’s words in his poem ‘The Secret of Perfect Relationships’:
Whenever we give others this new order of Understanding
Without asking for anything in return,
Those we greet with this Gift are silently touched;
they are moved by this willingness to put their concerns before our own.
And it is this one action that awakens in them . . .
Their sleeping need to respond in kind.
Finley is asking of us something countercultural: give without the expectation of return. He is asking us to have faith – to believe in the power of love without evidence or guarantee.
Our happiness, our satisfaction, our ability to take our place in the connection of things, requires of us that we put aside the marketplace mentality that pervades our everyday lives and commit faithfully to giving of ourselves.
Our great work then is to find within ourselves the strength to enter into relationship ready to give without expecting in return. Much within us rebels against this notion. ‘What about me?’ we cry in our neediness, and the prospect of love – whose mortal enemy is demand - fades from view.
Speaking to us from eight centuries years ago, the Sufi mystic Rumi advises
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.
The walls are there indeed. They are built with bricks of ‘shoulds’ – he should be more solicitous, she should do more of the cleaning, he should remember my birthday, she should be more outgoing…
It is not wrong to ask for more. Asking for what we need is very much a part of authentic relationship. But this wanting, when it becomes an obstacle to our own gift of love, does not get us what we want. It simply deprives us all of the gift.
We come to this community of faith, seeking many things; and chief among the promises and demands of our way of being religious are acceptance and love. We strive to be a community where each person finds it safe to be themselves, where growth is nourished, and where each one can enter into the fabric woven by the giving and receiving of care. We come to create in microcosm the greater world for which we strive.
Here, let us be among those who give without expectation of a return, who accept without judgement, and who love without fear. By this, may we and our world be transformed.
May it be so.