Hey - there's a person in there

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Too often as a society we are enamored of the outer shell.  If you have a pretty face, well then, you must be a great person.  The less fortunate among us don’t get the same free pass.  If you have a big nose, crooked teeth, maybe a wart…you must be evil or at least lacking on some moral level.

Popular culture is no help.  All the good guys and gals are beautiful people.  If you are not Ken or Barbie, you are bad, unless your name is Shrek.

I remember as a young boy I used to laugh at “ugly” people in the mall.  My brother and I would spy who we considered the ugliest person, or the fattest, or whatever…and make fun of them.  We thought we were funny.  It’s horrifying, looking back on it now, that we could be so callous.  You would think that two young boys such as us, living with an alcoholic, abusive step-father, would have more empathy.

There’s that word, empathy.  I like it a lot.  It is the most important word in the English language.  More than love, it is the single driving force behind all positive human interaction.  Love encompasses a whole range of emotions, but before you can fall into it, you have to begin to feel what another person feels.

What is ugly?  What is beautiful?  I used to think all you had to do was look at somebody—they were one or the other.  Worse than that, after fitting that person into my narrow definition of what constitutes good looks, I would then decide what kind of person they were, purely on the basis of how they looked. But then a funny thing happened to me on the way to maturity.  I got a job washing dishes in a rest home.

It was overwhelming.  All kinds of people lived there.  Old people.  Young people.  Disabled people.  Mentally challenged people.  They came in all shapes and sizes.  They were in wheel chairs and walkers.

I was afraid to talk to them.  I didn’t see them as people.  I saw their infirmities.

One day an aide was feeding a young man by the name of Ronnie.  Ronnie was confined to a wheelchair.  His only means of communication were grunts and facial expressions.   I was making a quick pass just to grab some dishes from the table, when the aide left abruptly.

“Talk to Ronnie,” said Nancy, the aide.  “I’ll be right back.”

“Uh, wait…”  I stammered.  But she was already gone.

This guy was in a wheelchair.  His hands were claws.  He couldn’t speak.  Remnants of his strained peas dribbled out of the corner of his mouth.  How do I talk to him?

I decided to talk to him like a guy.

“Hey Ronnie,” I said, “What’s a good looking dude like you hanging out in a dump like this for?”

“Hey!” Nancy said from behind me.  “Watch your mouth!”

Ronnie threw his head back and laughed.  Tears rolled down his face.

“He’s a funny guy, right, Ronnie?” said Nancy, wiping his face.  Turning to me, she said, “He likes you.  Not many people make him laugh.”

I looked at Ronnie.  He looked back at me, a big sloppy grin on his face, and I couldn’t help but laugh.   At that instant, I felt what he felt—the simple joy of being in the moment, and sharing it with a new friend.

30 years ago I was a brash kid who thought character was skin deep…but a guy in a wheelchair showed me that the true beauty of the human soul emanates from the inside out.