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This I Believe
I can’t forget his eyes. Bloodshot. Dark. Desperate. The first time I saw him, his appearance surprised me so much that I had to do a quick double-take to make sure that I’d seen correctly.
I had. He stood there, a tall, dark man who looked normal enough neck down, wearing ripped jeans and a stained sweatshirt, but neck up, he looked like every child’s nightmare. His head was distorted by a huge, grotesque gash that covered almost half of his face, making one of his eyes droop and causing his forehead to gape open. The gash started at the back of his scalp, angrily trailing over his head and down his leathery cheek in a thick, jagged reddish-purple line.
The depressed expression on his face held a hint of jealousy as he intently watched us with carefully guarded eyes, which were narrowed and angry. I could tell by his dirty face and oily hair that he hadn’t bathed in a while, and I could tell by the crazed look in his eyes at the sight of Thanksgiving dinner that he hadn’t eaten for days. Taking a deep breath, I smiled sympathetically at him, took his tray, and asked him if he wanted gravy with his turkey.
Every Thanksgiving, my youth group and I go to a homeless shelter in downtown Nashville to serve dinner. We’re told to serve food and clean up their trays, but more importantly, to sit down and have a conversation with them. After countless trips to the homeless shelter throughout the years, I’ve been able to talk to many different people and hear what they have to say. From stories of alcoholic husbands who would abuse their wives to women who had abandoned their kids for drugs, there isn’t a wide variety of situations that I haven’t already heard of. Though each story is equally heartbreaking, there’s usually nothing more I can do for them than to hold their hand when they cry and offer a few comforting words. So when this particular man came up to me while I was wiping a table, I wasn’t expecting anything radically different, but his story was nothing like the ones I’d heard before.
He casually pulled out a chair next to me and sat down.
“Well hi there. How you doin’ today?” He gave me wry grin, but it didn’t meet his eyes. I offered him a polite smile, and carefully averted my glance from his head. I replied, “Fine; how are you?” One thing I couldn’t help noticing was that he kept staring at me with a concentrated look on his face, and though I thought he would stop after a while, he didn’t. Starting to feel uncomfortable, I carefully turned my head so I wouldn’t have to look at him.
“I’m…I’m sorry.” He looked down, suddenly embarrassed. “It’s just that for some reason, you remind me of my daughter.” I immediately looked up. He’d caught my attention, and once he knew it, he continued. “My little girl was nine years old, the only baby me and my wife had. We were all from New Orleans…lived in a small, run-down house that was real close to the beach. Life ain’t easy down in New Orleans, but we got by, paid the bills, you know. But then—” he paused. He stared at the floor.
Seconds ticked by, and he remained silent.
“But then… what?” I asked hesitantly. He looked at me.
“Then the weather started getting crazy. Weathermen started getting crazy, predicting crazy things… God, we should’ve listened. But we didn’t, and before we knew it… the hurricane came. Katrina came… and stole everything I owned. It stole my wife and my baby. They didn’t make it through. No, hell no, they didn’t make it. The water busted down the house, and everything fell apart. Just like that. It was there one second and gone the other. Windows shattered, and God, I can’t forget the screaming. I tried to save them. I was so close. But they didn’t make it.” He paused, and shakily took a sip of his water, his fingers trembling slightly.
“You see this on my head?” His voice sounded hoarse. He pointed to the gash while keeping his eyes on me. “I was trying to get them out of the house, pulling them through the door. But it slammed into my face. The edge dug into my forehead and busted my head open. Left me like this,” he said bitterly. His voice trailed into a whisper. “But I didn’t save them. My little girl, my wife, both dead. Now I have nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing left of me.”
He was quiet for the next few minutes, and as I attempted to comfort him while he tried to hide his tears from me, all I could do was sit there and ask myself two questions: how can such awful things happen to good people? Why does anyone deserve to be rewarded for their hard work one day and suddenly have it all stolen from them the next, leaving them helpless and struggling?
Before I talked with this man, I’d never really understood that a lot of times, disastrous things happen to people who don’t deserve it, and when they’re in that situation, there’s really nothing they can do but hold their head up high, hope for the best, and bear through it. Sometimes, people get so frustrated and angry that they try to blame others for what’s happening to them, and in the end, the situation only becomes harder, more painful, and lonelier to go through. Awful things can happen to anyone, but it’s through how he or she handles the situation that people are differentiated, and I’ve learned that in a difficult situation, people can make one of two choices. The first is to be filled with self-pity and rely on others to solve their problems for them, and the second is to independently accept the situation and use the experience to make themselves stronger people.
An example of the second choice is that before Hurricane Katrina, 94% of New Orleans’s population was employed, and when the hurricane struck, the entire city became helpless and strongly dependent on others for help. Once life began going back to normal, however, many people chose to begin working when job opportunities arose. Today, the percentage of people employed in New Orleans has risen to 98%. Even after a storm so devastating, New Orleans actually ended up becoming a stronger and more advanced city than it was before.
This, I believe: Life is unpredictable, and things that seem to happen without a reason sometime feel impossible to deal with. When someone decides not to let complicated situations control his or her life or define who he or she is by choosing to keep moving forward, regardless of what may happen, the outcome is almost always going to be fulfilling.
Later, the man told me that once he raised enough money to pay for a bus ticket, he would get a job with the Salvation Army and do whatever he could to start his life over. “My wife would’ve wanted it,” he said quietly, and for the first time all evening, he smiled.