This weekend while I was walking, I saw a man in a wheelchair being pushed in my direction. It was clear his disability went beyond the inability to walk, as he seemed unable to talk or fully control his motor skills either. As he moved closer, I did something a few years ago I wouldn’t have thought to do. I intentionally looked in his eyes and said hello.
I know, that doesn’t sound like a big deal. Many of you probably do that all the time, but in the past I would have thought I shouldn’t stare or that he may not understand me anyway, so I would have passed him with a vague glance and a smile.
This changed for me the summer before last when my mom and I took my dad to a hospital in Pittsburgh to be evaluated for a lung transplant. It was a grueling week of tests, tests, and more tests. With about 10% of his lung capacity left, it’s close to impossible for my dad to be on the go all day, but that’s what we did every day that week. He plopped down in a wheelchair and we rolled all over the many buildings of this huge hospital.
I was prepared for a tough week and knew we would simply have to hunker down and get through it. I was right. But what I wasn’t expecting was the kindness of the people who worked at the hospital. Most everyone who worked there from the nurses to the registration clerks to the doctors to the parking attendants really looked at my dad and said hello. They smiled at him. They asked him how he was feeling and seemed to really care about the answer. Some laughed at his jokes (when he felt well enough to tell them). He wasn’t just another patient in a wheelchair. They really saw him.
Now of course I know that my dad’s spirit hasn’t lessened just because of his illness, but somehow it was comforting to see that they knew it too. Those simple acts of kindness and acknowledgement turned a tough week into something a little more bearable, a little sweeter.
My favorite singer, Sara Groves, shares a story she heard a woman tell of an event that transformed her life. The woman said she was delivering Thanksgiving dinner to a family in need when she accidently bumped into a man who was homeless walking down the street. She apologized as she tried to clean up the gravy she spilled on his jacket. He looked at her strangely and said, “Are you talking to me?” “Yes,” she said, “I’m so sorry.” “You can see me?” he asked, perplexed. “Well, of course,” she answered, “I just spilled this all over you.” He replied, “Because I thought I was invisible.” She knew he meant this quite literally, as if no one had truly seen him in a long time.
There are too many people in our society who feel invisible. They may be sick or disabled, homeless or addicted to drugs, out of work or in prison. Whatever the reason, they feel that somehow they are not truly seen by others. I looked at the man in the wheelchair the other day, not out of pity or obligation, but because I wanted him to know that I saw the Divine spark within him. I saw the beauty of his spirit that cannot be diminished by any physical challenge or any reason for that matter.
We all have this spark in us, no matter what our society makes up about who is important and who is not. No one has it more or less than anyone else. I want to truly see that spark in every person who crosses my path. I hope they will see it in me as well.