What a man who lives in his van reminded me about the suffering world around us…
I drove to Walmart one day this week to pick up new goggles and bathing suits for my children’s swim team trials. As I pulled my van into a spot, I noticed another familiar vehicle, similar to my own, parked across from me. The owner, an older gentleman who sports a shock of white hair that matches the van he drives, calls that vehicle home.
Sometime last year, I parked next to him and when leaned he out his window, his cigarette butt hanging from his lip and dripping ash everywhere, I was immediately alarmed.
I think I’ve seen too many episodes of Dateline NBC because one look the man’s unpolished appearance and I was sure he was waiting to drag my kids and me into the back of his vehicle and maim us. Instead, he grinned at me from ear to ear and tried to make conversation with my daughter. I grunted a quick response, turned my back on him, and loaded my kids into the car. Then, I locked the doors and drove away as fast as I could, heart pounding through my chest.
Over this past year, though, I’ve see the man who lives in his van all over town—in the parking lot at Food Lion, at the Chick-fil-A grabbing a bite to eat and of course, at the local Walmart. Every time I run into him, I wonder about his life, his family, and the nature of a world where people reside in their vehicle rather than a proper home. Normally, I drive away from him and feel a mixture of shame and dread and sadness.
I always feel pity for him, until this week, that is.
As I drove to the Walmart on this particular morning, I found myself besieged with worry.
I worried about my dad who was having cochlear implant surgery.
I worried about my mom, sitting alone at the hospital, feeling vulnerable and anxious about my dad.
I worried about the auditions my nine-year-old daughter, Mary, had for a children’s choir later that afternoon. I worried she would feel devastated if she didn’t make the team.
I worried about the five-day swim team trials in which five of my children would participate. I worried about the intense commitment for the summer and whether my little guys would be overwhelmed competing against other kids.
I worried about my sixth grader’s progress (or lack thereof) in math and I worried he was going to be devastated when I told him he needed to repeat the year.
I worried about the brand new (expensive) John Deere tractor that my husband, John, purchased two weeks ago and used one time before it blew up.
I worried about a looming writing project and whether or not I have any business tackling something like it.
I worried about money because we just purchased a new house and we’ve had some unforeseen expenses like a leak in the ceiling, a new hole in my wall because of leaking copper pipes and a shower faucet handle that literally fell off in my daughter’s hand.
I worried, I worried, and then I worried some more.
So on this particular morning, when I parked my van across the street from the homeless guy, instead of feeling pity or fear or a desire to avoid him (like I typically do), I felt one with him. Though my life and my worries are different (and probably more luxurious) than his, I didn’t feel superior or better off than he. I felt united to him and all the other people in the world who suffers from what it means to be human.
I thought of my childhood friend whose four-year-old daughter has Stage IV cancer and I felt connected to her. I thought of my son’s writing teacher whose husband also has cancer and I felt connected to her. I thought of the great sufferings of all the people spread throughout the world and I felt connected to them in my own small sufferings.
This momentary feeling I experienced in the Walmart parking lot reminded me of something Elizabeth Scalia once wrote. She was in an airport waiting to board a flight home after a long week. She was having a beer at the bar with a stranger when all of a sudden, she had had a profound experience. She writes:
“For just the briefest instant, it seemed as though everything simply stopped; a full-on freeze frame.
“The people walking by, the escalators full of people floating up or down, the groups gathering by the schedule board, the music and conversation around me — it all seemed to simply stop.
“And in the space of a pulse — with the same sort of fleeting beat of affirmation that characterizes a pulse — I understood something in an instinctive and internal way that I cannot yet perfectly or even adequately describe.
“I wouldn’t presume to say that anything was being communicated to me, but I nevertheless had a glimpse — or an overwhelming ‘sense’ — of something. In that brief flash I knew that hovering over us, near us, within us, all about us was an awful, unstoppable ache of love and sadness; a sense of ‘Oh, my people! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.’ This ache of longing, reaching out; of longing unanswered, unfulfilled.”
I thought of Scalia’s words this morning when I had my own moment of standstill, my own moment of time where I recognized not just my own suffering, but the sufferings of others as well.
After I bought my children their new swimsuits and goggles at the Walmart, I wrangled the bags from the full grocery cart, the cranky toddler and the preschooler into my van. As I passed the man in the white vehicle, I made eye contact with him and smiled.
I made sure he saw me, that he knew I knew he existed.
I’m no different than he is, really. I suffer and so does he and Jesus is with us both. Jesus is with all of us and we are never alone.