I am oft wrought into depression by the things I see at work, and around the neighbourhood in which I work. The cycles of despair and desperation wear on one’s soul – and everyday, I make at least one decision that seems prudent at the time, but petty in retrospect. (Everything from refusing someone a meal for free because the aftermath of all the others who also need free meals would ruin us, to enforcing small rules that bring order into chaos, while reducing the cafeteria to a school yard, with me playing teacher.) I often wish I could feed everyone who came through the line, hungry and broke, and spoil each and every one of them instead of imposing the rules of the daily special or the extra price of a packet of margarine.
This past week was especially difficult. Faced with a large, hungry crowd, our collective humanity is lost in the shuffle, as I, the machine, try to rush folk through the line, snap up their money and hustle them along.
I also have a disturbing tendency to heave people over the gangplank once they’ve committed an offence of rudeness, insanity, cruelty or laziness. They become “the man who threw soup at me” or “the lady who tries to scam me” instead of complex individuals with storied pasts, and difficult presents, and quite reasonably, a few bad days under their belts.
I am often tempted, like many city beat reporters who cover the Downtown Eastside armed only with cliches, to create caricatures instead of honest character sketches. That’s partly why I shy away from writing much about where I work. The opportunity for cartoonish stories and heartwarming incidents overwhelms the possibility for honest story-telling.
But the following scene unfolded before me a little while ago, and gifted me with a revelation of humanity that I can cling to when the lines get long and the customers compete with me for crankiness.
There is an old-time gentleman who calls the centre his home – he is doggedly involved, and will talk to anyone, usually for just a little bit longer than they would like. He also has very particular routines – the same breakfast order every morning, the same requests, and most importantly, the same table to sit at. On Wednesday morning, he arrived at his table and found a sulking, hooded young man occupying it. He was a brooding, faceless figure, one I’ve seen a thousand times over.
So our elder gentleman sat down and touched the youth on the shoulder, saying in his particularly stentorian voice, “If you want to break bread with me, you’ll have to sit up straight and show your face.” Watching from behind the counter, I braced myself for possible violence and a quick call to the security team. (Just goes to show you what kind of caricature I had already drawn that young man into – just another faceless, angry, disrespectful youth).
And then – instead of angry words, revelation. The hood sat up, slid out from under his angst, and listened intently as his breakfast companion shared a funny story and some toast. I glimpsed his face – a person enjoying the unexpected moment of being gently chided back into humanity.
Dealing with people is a slippery business – we change their minds, opinions, habits and feelings faster than we can be caricatured or labelled, and I am deeply chastened by this simple, frustrating fact. I have been too busy watching the cartoons instead of looking for the human faces. If I think about it, there are many other moments where I had a particular picture of someone that overtook their personhood. As their humanity (ability to laugh, to change, to repent, to care, to suffer, to feel) became more compelling than my rough version of them, I had to let go of my vendettas, minor grievances, and dissapointments, and let them be.
The most frustrating and beautiful thing about people is that they change. I change, too. And I’ve been given enough second, third and fourth chances in my lifetime to give out a few in return.
There is another man whom I’ve come to know through work who shared something honest of himself with me awhile ago. As Christmas with its spirit of generosity comes on, I’ve returned to that particular conversation about his lists. He has a “dead to me” list. Of folk who’ve offended him, hurt him, behaved badly, been generally degenerate.
And I’ve been gently teasing him about crossing off the names on that list. I catch him with a smile, and say, “How’s your list today?”
It’s a question I need to ask myself.
How many people are on my naughty list? How many people are quietly frozen out of a gift of forgiveness that I have the power to give?
Forgiveness is a complicated thing – born out of pain and heartache, a soul crying out for freedom from the past. It jars with our natural tendencies of retaliation and isolation.
But forgiveness is freedom. I can look at my sister as the prime example of this: she was brutally assaulted a few years ago. The entire community rallied around her, bearing metaphorical arms as the police sought her attacker. And yet, when the trial began, and the dust had settled, she chose to spend a few minutes with the giver of her pain. She walked into the room, sat down across a table from this man, and told him that she forgave him. And out of that brave act, she began to walk into a freedom that came gradually and beautifully.
I don’t know if I could do that. But the joy and sweetness I see in her is incredible.
And then I come back to my own naughty list. It’s much pettier than my sister’s – and almost worse, in a way, as the smallest offences that others have committed against me, out of neglect, or carelessness, or emotional disturbance, have caused us to drift apart. I’ve let a bad moment become a dead friendship, or worse, let tiny hurts or suspicions stall the tiniest beginnings of future friendships.
So, this Christmas, I’m going to take a page from the Roma. Their holiday traditions revolved around reconciliation, on all levels. The following is selection of Romani idioms, common among the Czech Romani peoples. They say these at Christmas to one another, and together.
O Roma penge tele muken.
O Roma jekh avres phiren te mangel, kaj leske te odmukel.
Roma go to each other to beg forgiveness and be forgiven.
O Roma, kaj save te ulahas rushte, pre Karachonya penge odmuken u aven pale lachhe.
Roma, though they be the worst enemies, forgive and are reconciled during Christmas.
Sar shaj jivas, te na janas jekh avreske te odmukel? How could we live at all, if we didn’t learn to forgive each other.
How’s your list this Christmas?