Wednesday, January 18, 2017


One evening I was riding home from Manhattan to Brooklyn and there was a man sitting on a seat at the very end of the train. Everyone who entered the train moved away from him quickly. Along with fidgeting and mumbling, he was wiping yogurt out of a container with his fingers and licking them.

Homeless people ride the trains. Some of them are cleanish - meaning they looked weathered but don't smell. They just want a place to sleep. Less often, you find someone who hasn't bathed in a year, and the smell of urine and body odor and goodness knows what else is overpowering. Those people get a car all to themselves.

This particular man was very unusual. There was something beautiful about him. He looked to be in his 30s. His face was tanned, but not leathery, and his thick, black beard reached to his chest.. He was barefoot, but his feet hadn't calloused. His hands were gentle looking, the nails were dirty, but not ridged or discolored. His hair was long, curly, and shiny. His clothes weren't mismatched and raggedy. They were stained, but looked a bit preppy. I figured him to be off his meds.

I knew a woman in New York who took psychotropic drugs. She found it hard to concentrate and impossible to write while she was taking the correct dosages. Sometimes she stopped so she could write something and then she'd get manic, ending up in the psych ward for evaluation. It seemed like a hellish way to live. Feel nothing or feel crazy.

I don't know how long it takes to grow a beard down to your chest, but I expect it would take a few weeks. But he just couldn't be that clean if he'd been sleeping on the street that long. In fact, I now realize that he surely had an apartment where that he could shower, change clothes, and walk out barefoot. If I had realized that at the time, I wouldn't have done what I did. Which was to take a few dollars out of my wallet and drop them on the seat next to him when I exited the train.

Oh boy.

He jumped up and started screaming at me DON'T YOU DARE GIVE ME MONEY as he tore the money and threw it out the door onto the train platform not far from where I was standing. Other people hurried away. I stood there anchored, watching him. He screamed, I'LL KILL YOU!

He didn't move toward me, and oddly, the look on his face was not anger or malice, but defeat. I knew he was living a drama that had nothing to do with me and felt very sad for him. The train door closed and he was gone. I picked up the money (of course) and went upstairs to the booth to report that a mentally ill man was having an episode on the train, gave the car number, and went home.

Three months or so later, I saw him again. He was on the street in Manhattan. Clean shaved, hair cut, clean clothes and a pinched look on his gray face. Gone was the beauty. He saw me and looked ashamed. Again, I felt sad.

There's a point to this story and it's not that you should be afraid to ride the subway. That's not a common episode and is only scary if you decide to jump into a drama and escalate it the wrong way. But something brought this event to my mind recently and I thought, that man was perfectly fine sitting there licking his fingers until I decided what he needed. He didn't ask me or anyone else for money. Even so, when he got upset, I didn't take it personally, not one bit. I was neither angry with him, judgmental, nor afraid. Not for one minute did I think at the time that he was going to hurt me nor did his ranting effect me except for a little embarrassment in front of others.

Why can't I see all provocative situations and people that way - whether family, friends, or strangers? Why can I not just see them as sad, instead of seeing them as rude, arrogant, or mean? Why do I take it personally and get my feelings hurt, get angry, or become afraid over silly things? Why try to prove a point or make them wrong and myself right even if it's only in my own mind? They are just projecting, expressing, manifesting their own feelings and until I take it personally, it's not about me.

Maybe this week, I'll practice the Four Agreements -

be impeccable with your word
don't take anything personally
don't make assumptions
do your best

Maybe next week I'll practice them again.

[The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz:]

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