Friday, June 18, 2010

An Encounter


A young African-American man came up to me while I was writing at Borders this morning. “May you help me?” He’s mentally disabled, having trouble forming words – yet he says these words so clearly from repeating them so often. He says some other words I don’t understand, and puts his hand out to shake mine. Used to saying no to peddlers, and resenting when they have me ‘cornered’ (e.g. while writing in a café or sitting at a restaurant), I put my two hands up and say, “I’m sorry, I can’t.” I don’t shake his hand. Then I watch him approach every other customer in the store – and even the Borders employee running their café (he clearly is not constrained by social norms), and speak the same words: “May you help me?” I watch him, he’s moving his hands now across his head in a motion you don’t see often, which I think relates to his disability.

Should I walk up to him? I ask myself. No, I have work to do. My work is helping others. I’m ironically measuring the social impact of some recent conferences, including a leadership program for low-income youth. But here is someone who needs my help, right here, I think. No, I’m busy. After much mental deliberation, I get up, walk over to him, and ask, “What is it you are trying to do?” I have trouble understanding his response, but he repeats it a few times and I finally get it: he’s staying in a rooming house and needs to pay sixteen dollars for the night. I reach into my pocket and hand him five dollars. He shakes my hand, and looks at me with genuine appreciation.

Then he does something that breaks my heart. Not knowing how to express his gratitude, he crosses the psychological chasm between us and hugs me. Not the kind of masculine chest-thumping hug I’m used to with other men, but a genuine embrace, an expression of love, unfettered by the fear we have of each other in our society.

I came back to my seat and tears welled up in my eyes. His name is Michael, like the angel. He was my angel today. He reconnected me with my heart, and helped me to feel again.

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Anthony Silard is the president of The Global Leadership Institute and the author of the Simon & Schuster book The Connection: Link Your Passion, Purpose, and Actions to Make a Difference in the World. To receive Smile, It's Monday each week in your inbox and a free copy of Anthony's new audio CD, "The Surprising Source of Your Passion", enter your email here (1-step only).