It was one of those wonderful Georgia days in mid-February, which resembled more a day in spring than one in the middle of winter. Bright sun, no clouds in the sky, a wind yes, but not very cold; just a very nice, slightly bracing day, mood elevating, just like spring. I got off at the Turner Hill exit here in Conyers, Ga.; it is the turn off for Stonecrest Mall. It is a large mall, which is like all the others and has a great many stores that have grown up around it. I was on my way to Sam’s. As I was driving up, I saw a man sitting at the stop light, and I could see his sign from way back. Now there are three places that I have chosen to give money if I see someone there asking for help. These places are far from downtown, so hopefully most of them are really in need. In any case I think I give more for myself than for those who are asking. Why, you may ask? Well speaking only for myself, I feel that it would in some way harm me, if I on a daily basis passed by those in need without giving anything. I just notice them too strongly to pass all of them by. Besides outside of Atlanta, they are not that common, not actually rare, but not at every other stop sign.
As I looked into my wallet I saw that I only had a few small bills, so I got them ready, and as I drove up got myself set to give them to him. Luckily the light was red and there was no one behind me. He looked to be in early middle age, perhaps 37, crew cut and in military issue pants. He was about thirty feet from the stop light, so I gave him the money and then continued to roll up towards the light. He appeared different from all of the others that I have given to. He seemed to be in much better health, at least physically, but it was the way that he received the donation that got my attention. He seemed afraid to look up at me, and when he said thanks he looked away. For some reason I think (who knows perhaps it is a compulsion of mine) I was moved to give him more. It was a long light, so I knew I had time to back up (there were no cars behind me) and do that. So I backed up and asked him if he was a veteran. He answered “I am a veteran from the gulf war”. So I gave him more than I would usually do. He took the money, and said thanks, but did not look at me; so I pulled back up. Then he started to walk towards me talking, which got me by surprise, so I did not react right away. In any case, he stopped whatever he was doing and went inward again. He bent over, got his things and slung the pack over his shoulder and proceeded to cross the street towards a gas station. For some reason seeing him like that, alone, isolated, perhaps cold and hungry much of the time, really got to me, I was caught unawares I guess. I felt a great deal of sorrow for this man who seemed to suffer from some sort of mental affliction; he seemed to me, to be almost autistic. I almost wanted to go after him and see if he needed anything else, but of course that would have been foolish, for he, like I said, seemed to be isolated within himself.
Many veterans can be seen at stop signs now days. It is often overlooked the price many of our young people pay when fighting for our country; for there are not always just physical wounds that are brought back. Was it the war that did this to him? Or perhaps it just speeded up the process towards mental illness? I can’t imagine the stress and horror our young people go through over in Iraq, or Viet Nam, or in any war for that matter. What do they bring back with them? What memories torture them at night? Who can they talk to when they fall through the cracks? What about their families, parents, wives and children?
The seeds of war have deep roots with bitter fruit. How much compassion is shown to them? How often are they overlooked or scorned? Psyche health can be lost easier than many believe and recovery may never happen. I would imagine war does its share in bringing many people down into the dark world of mental illness and not just soldiers, but the millions all over the world who are the victims of these conflicts.
I know many are helped and yes healed, but what about the men like the one I saw? Perhaps nothing at this time and date can be done, maybe there are just too many of them. I feel however that if more compassion were shown them on a daily basis, which would be just little acts of kindness; may help to lessen their suffering a bit. Yes I know, many are addicts of one kind or another. They self medicate themselves; and I guess each will have to decide what to do when confronted by their presence. Giving to shelters and organizations that deal with the homeless helps and is good, but again, can someone pass by a man or woman in need on a regular basis and not in some way be hurt by this. Will some part of the heart close never to reopen? I don’t know, for what is true for me may not be that way for others after all. I could be wrong in giving money to these men, yet I feel that at least at some places I need to give something, if not for them, well again, for myself.
We are species that can be hard, cruel, warlike and unforgiving. All we have to do is look around. Or peer into our own hearts, to see that there is an inner war that goes on in each of us. We are also capable of love, compassion, empathy almost beyond measure. It is as if we are always at a crossroads, each day asked to make little decisions that perhaps will have far reaching consequences. Acts of kindness, based on freedom and love, are conscious choices, (which I believe has grace at its root) which are made by individuals, apart from any movement or group. Will this change the world? I am not sure that matters, yet if we can only lighten the load of one person, perhaps bringing some love and healing into his or her life, perhaps that is enough. Even if that does not happen all the time, the trying is still a worthwhile endeavor.
Governments cannot return evil with good, it is not their place. They are there to protect the interest of those they represent. Granted this is not always good, in fact it almost never is, yet that is their function. To love one enemies, to forgive, to not continue the cycle of evil for evil, can only be done at the grass roots level; one heart at a time. So yes, it may not change the world, yet that is what we are called to do. To leave the road easily taken, that is really just instinctive, for another path, which takes thought, struggle, failure and getting up, again and again. For to learn to love and forgive, to be open to grace is well worth the effort and failures, no matter how slow the process. Acts, even little ones have unforeseen consequences, that goes for acts of gentleness and love, as well as those of hatred, anger and indifference. So which garden do I want to cultivate? Which seeds do I want to plant? That is a question I must ask myself everyday.