There is something different about him. I’m not sure what I notice first. The worn clothes. The lack of a real hairdo. The slouchy posture. There is something unsettling about the way he looked. I keep my distance.
Then I see her. She is built big and strong. She has a gun at her belt. She looks like she is in charge. I keep my distance. From her. From her gun.
I’m checking in at Dr. Leo’s department. Digestive Health. Why are these people here? I keep my distance. I look. I listen.
He never says anything. He keeps looking at her. She talks to the receptionists. He has a procedure today, she says. He needs to go to the procedure. The receptionists give directions and point. GI Procedures are located two floors below in the hospital. She says, We can’t go to the Information Desk. He’s not allowed to interact with patients. You need to tell me how to get there. I will escort him. It’s against the law for him to run into patients.
Eventually, the receptionists give her directions to the staff elevator. They tell her to take him to the staff elevator, select “Basement”, and then GI Procedures will be right there. But I’ve stopped listening. I’m looking again.
I see the words on her uniform. “Department of Corrections.” I see his deference to her. He’s a prisoner.
I see her gun. I look back at him. I keep my distance.
But I keep looking. It’s then that I see the fear. It’s in his posture. It’s in his furtive glances at her, at the receptionists. The slight tightening of his body each time the words “GI Procedures” are articulated. He’s scared.
I remember the first time I had a GI procedure. I recall the sleepless night. I recall the years that I dragged my feet on having it done. I recalled the clinging to my close friend that drove me there and back. I remember feeling vulnerable. Helpless. Insignificant. Alone. Confused. Lost. And who knew what lay on the other side? The other side of the door? The other side of this procedure?
I look back at him. The clothes, the hair, the posture are still there. But I don’t see them any more. I see a man with some type of illness. Facing the unknown. Alone.
There’s no one with unconditional love to hold his hand, to assure him that they’ll be waiting on the other side. There’s no one fighting for him. There’s no one talking to him. Just a lot of talk around him.
It crosses my mind. What has he done to deserve this treatment? He should count himself lucky that the government allows him to have medical treatment at all.
But deep within my heart, I know that none of that matters. Illness is not a respecter of persons. It wreaks havoc on the unsuspecting. On the innocent. It does the same to civilians and prisoners.
Looking at this man in front of me, I notice that he’s probably only a little bit older than me. His discomfort isn’t just because there’s no one talking to him or there’s a woman with a gun chaperoning him. He’s also in a lot of pain. And scared. He’s struggling to remain composed, to meet the expectations of everyone in the room. But I see someone fighting a battle against disease. I see someone wondering how much longer this will define him. I see someone who’s lost control over yet another aspect of his life. I see me.
They’re turning to leave. She’s going to follow the directions to the staff elevator. She motions to him to follow her. For a brief glimpse, I see the front of his face. That message of vulnerability is written all over his face.
It’s just a moment. I too have heard her say that the law forbids interaction between him and civilians. I’m intimidated. By her. By her gun. By the law. But I see him walking toward me. It’s just an instance. But I give him a smile. A message that someone cares. Someone understands. Someone wishes him the best. Because I’ve walked in his shoes before.
The rest of that visit was a blur. I remember checking in. I remember meeting one of Dr. Leo’s colleagues.
That encounter with this man has stayed with me. I realized how easy it was to pass judgment, to reach a conclusion, based on the visible: his clothing, his posture, her gun, those words “Department of Corrections”. Her words confirmed what my eyes beheld. A prisoner. A dangerous person. In broad daylight. Right in front of me.
It took some thinking. It took some breathing. It took me back to moments with Timothy and his conversations with some of the other parishioners, people who were homeless or otherwise troubled. I remember that he was smart and used common safety sense. But he interacted with them like persons foremost. He allowed himself to connect with these people at the most fundamental level.
It’s not so much whether something can be seen or is hidden from the naked eye. Because oftentime, we see things that don’t exist while we render invisible the things before us.
They tell us that first impressions are important. Perhaps they are. But what about looking a little deeper than that? It’s simple to adopt that attitude that I see, therefore it is. or I don’t understand, therefore it isn’t.
Visible disabilities. Invisible illnesses. So often it’s about what we know, the familiar. But it’s often also about the immediate.
But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature;… for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.
I Samuel 16:7
Sometimes what’s in the heart is reflected on the outside. Oftentimes, it’s apparent if we choose to be cognizant of it.
I’m reminded again and again that it’s not about the seen and the unseen. It’s about the person in front of me. Some of him is seen, some unseen. Some of him is known, some unknown. Some relevant, some irrelevant. What mattered was that we shared a common storyline, a common human experience. The rest? It became invisible. Because it didn’t matter.