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