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Week 3: The Gift of Seeing

image of person within human eye

Photo by naturesdawn on Flickr

The Stranger with whom I planned to share this week’s gift of NonViolent Communication (via Marshall Rosenberg’s classic book on that subject) wound up being a self-described resident of the men’s homeless shelter – who did not read or write.

Sitting in the library cafe in front of his laptop with a homemade lunch of granola and cranberries, his fluffy beard-tuft and small black skullcap gave him an air of thoughtful presence.

“May I join you?” I asked, my heart beating wildly.

And thus began a remarkable two-hour conversation which ranged from his vegan diet (“It’s hard to eat healthy in the Shelter, though”) to romantic relationships (“I was married once – just for a few months. It didn’t work out – the environmental context was all wrong”) to the mystery of urinary tract infections (“How do you get those?”) and the wonders of Psychology (“That’s like having a degree in Intelligence! Because you know the difference between thoughts, wishes, plans and ideas – which most humans don’t even think about”) to the rise and fall of his fortunes (“When it’s warmer my yard business picks up. Then I have some silver and platinum in my pockets.”)

His thoughts, sometimes clear and poignant – sometimes non-linear and disconnected from my reality, meandered widely, always curling back to his main point in the end.

“I learn differently,” he told me several times. “I never could master spelling or reading. I sat all through school watching others ’round me, trying to pick up what they were doing and saying. Mostly I learned from watching TV, though – you know, top 10 CNN news stories. People would always tell me ‘you’re so smart!’ but they wouldn’t help me. Then I realized that what they wanted was to steal the smart thoughts from my mind… So, as a kid, I would steal things from others. Sometimes I’d get caught. Been to prison for stuff I done – and stuff they nailed on me. Thing I learned after a while is they don’t wanna help you. They rather fuck you and fuck you and fuck you than help you. But I’m just slow, you know. I learn differently from others and that’s how it’s always been.”

As I was getting ready to leave, he stared moodily at his computer (“a gift from a friend on campus”), clicking back and forth between the currently unused Twitter, Facebook and g-mail accounts she had set up for him.

“Maybe you were sent to me,” he said, “By someone. Or by God. Maybe we are meant to help each other. You said you are looking for purpose in life. I might know something about that. I might be able to help. And you could help me. Do you think you could help me?”

His plaintive request ricocheted in my mind as I walked out of the library, head bent. I’d told him I wanted to think about it and asked where I could find him (same table, same place, every day). I felt like crap.

What was I doing? Why was I reaching out to others if I were not willing to follow through? But I already felt full – already not finding the spaciousness I wanted in my life – to connect with family and friends – to be a mom and lover and fly-by-writer and better-keeper of the vessel in which I lived. And what if he asked for things I wasn’t comfortable giving? Or if I compromised my family’s safety by reaching out to him?

I didn’t want my “self-improvement project” to become a game I played with other people’s feelings. But where did my responsibility to others begin and end?

Later that night, still revved up and ruminating, I shared my feelings (via Skype instant messenger) with a friend who’d taught NonViolent Communication to men in homeless shelters and prison:

Me: still worked up about the stranger. 2 hrs with him. looking in my eyes the entire time – and me looking back

Friend: wow. dignity.

Me: he asked for help

Friend: hmmm – you gave him hope. he mattered. when you are invisible like these guys often are, being seen and heard are huge.

I didn’t know what I’d do next or how I’d answer my own thorny questions. Yet, I felt somehow lighter and freer.

I had looked a Stranger in the eye as he talked about his pain, confusion, and struggles – and I had tried (imperfectly, clumsily, sometimes distractedly) to see the humanity within him.

Maybe Seeing was as worthy a gift as any, and maybe, I had managed to share the heart of NVC after all.

Creative Commons License
Talking To Strangers by Elaine Shpungin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


About Elaine Shpungin

Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D. is the founder of Conflict 180: an indivualized approach to whole school turn-around. Her writing has appeared in, Tikkun Magazine, and edited books on pop culture themes (e.g., The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, House M.D.). Her essays on conflict can be found on

6 responses »

  1. Wow, Elaine. I’m so moved reading this. It was so easy to imagine this happening in reality. Maybe it is enough just to see and hold the humanity of others without “fixing.” Thank you!

    • Yes! There is a part of me that really wants to believe in the gift of connection and a part of me that is always questioning. It seems that so much of what I am doing in the last few years as I explore my own humanity and that of others is about UNLEARNING messages I’ve heard my whole life about how to be of most “use” to others!

      Unlearning, Unraveling, Unbecoming.

      What a trip!

  2. I remember one man, with whom I talked years ago in a bus stop. He was little drunk and he was one we would call men of parks (they sit in parks and drink together). I talk with all kinds of people, regardless what they look like or if they are drunk, I don’t remember, what we talked about, but when my bus came, I clearly remember, that his last words were “how could you talk with me, when nobody else will?”.

    You never know, how important thing a moment of listening and seeing might be to people. You can’t always be able to help them more, but most of the time, that is a huge gift. If you can’t help this man you told, maybe you can find someone that could?

    • Yes – what you share reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Saint Exupery: “… it is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

      What is visible to our eyes is the “obvious” – the things we are “taught” to see as most important. When we “blur” our vision to see past all that, we may be lucky enough to glimpse the essential – the fine gossamer threads that pass between us just below the surface.

  3. Hi Elaine,

    I’m really moved by this post. The gift of your thoughtful presence to this man was surely a contribution. It sounds as if his whole life he’s been searching for acceptance and belonging.
    Recently, I met a young woman asking for money on the street. Other people were walking by, seeming to ignore her. She approached me and started to tell me about being hungry and having her purse stolen by a man she thought was a friend. I gave her a 5 dollar bill. She began to cry and say, “Thank you; I know everybody thinks I’m just a bum…”
    I looked her in the eye and said, “I don’t think you’re a bum”. It was true. She looked in my eyes and told me I was the first person who’d said that. I repeated, “I don’t think you’re a bum”. “God bless you”. It just came out of me, in response to her desperation and putting herself out there to ask for money from strangers. “God bless you, too!” she said through tears.
    I walked on, but now realize I could have given her the gift of a bit more conversation, of my time. I had the feeling, though, that my words were more of a gift to her than the money.

    • Yes, this really resonates for me – and reminds me of what I found in my dissertation when I spent 5 months “hanging out” and interviewing mothers (and staff) in a homeless shelter for women and children (a concept, in itself, that is so heartbreaking that it’s hard to connect to it fully).

      My dissertation was about dignity – and the women and I spent lots of time talking about conditions that created a sense of being seen as fully human – or less than fully human – in the shelter.

      At one point in the interview I asked the women to WEIGH – on an imaginary balance scale I created with my palms – the importance of receiving “stuff” they needed – like clothes, rent assistance, diapers, bus fare – against “having their human worth and dignity recognized” (in whatever words they had described that previously).

      There was not a single mom who weighed “stuff” as having more importance than “dignity” on my hand-scale -with a significant proportion giving “dignity” far more weight.

      This is why I’ve always disagreed with Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs” which places shelter and physical comfort before connection and love.

      I think your “feeling” that your words (dignity) were more important to her than your money – much better captures the truth of the human experience.


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