My office is in downtown Richmond. I like the neighborhood we are in, but it’s on a block that you probably wouldn’t want to walk around by yourself at 3:00 am. Some of our neighbors are nice, some aren’t as friendly. Some people I pass on the street are kind, others talk to themselves or make rude remarks. Some ride their bikes, while other stand still, not waiting for anything in particular, drinking out of something in a paper bag.
Some of my neighbors are more obviously broken than others. Some of their struggles lie closer to the surface.
We’re all broken people. We all have struggles. We all have flaws. However it is certainly true that some people have endured more hardship or made worse decisions or had more difficulties than others. When I am confronted by great misfortune in someone else’s life, even if it’s only in a short instant as I pass them on the street, I am too often uncomfortable. I think contemplating the depth of their pain or the strangeness of their struggle intimidates me.
A couple months ago though, I passed a man on the street who I could smell from a few feet away and who made some sort of comment to me along the lines of, “What are you doing, baby?”
I was frustrated and I was a little scared, as all women are when they are catcalled. After I was away from the man though, I thought about him more. For some reason, instead of imagining what was going on in his head now, I imagined what he thought as a child.
I imagined him coloring pictures with crayons. I imagined him playing with friends. I imagined what his home was like. Did his parents get along well? Did they fight? I imagined the boundless love he must have had for them, whether they were good or bad at being parents. All children, for a time, have a uniquely unconditional admiration for their mothers and fathers.
As a child, did this man dream of love? Did he ever imagine living in a house with a porch and a sunny kitchen?
Did he ever sit on a carpet printed with cartoon roads and listen to stories? What was his favorite movie? How old was he when he realized that he could not, in fact, be a super hero?
I imagined this man as a child, with his shining hopes and dreams beyond number. As a child, ignorant to the fact that there is unfathomably deep pain in this world. As a child, happy on a playground or on the school bus or in his bed at night dreaming fantastical dreams.
As I imagined him as a child, I thought of what may have happened to make him who he is today: an unwashed man drinking beer before 5:00 saying rude things to women. I imagined him as a child seeing a glimpse of himself in the future and recoiling in disbelief.
Imagine telling a five year old, “You’re going to be an alcoholic someday. You’re going to care so little that you’ll go days without a shower. Your friends will leave you and you’ll frantically go from one broken relationship to another. You’ll hurt the ones you love until you are totally and completely alone.”
A child would not believe you, but would also be horrified, scared that these almost incomprehensible words are the truth. The idea of that child’s life losing wonder and goodness and beauty is awful to me.
The goodness and innocence that people possess as children is not flawless, children are still capable of choosing to do and become very bad things. However, as adults that same goodness is not lost. The capacity for generous love and beautiful dreams is still in each person, no matter how badly they have suffered.
God has created every person and has imbued them with the capacity for good. He loves everyone, no matter what they do with the equally God-given capacity to choose. No person’s life is so weighted by pain that they are beyond redemption. No person is really ever too far gone to love and be loved by God. Every person can become a child of God and live a life restored.
So I have begun to view people differently. I think my capacity for compassion has grown as I think about what people could have been like as children, what they might have experienced, and what they may still want from life. Then, as I think about how God loves the people around me and all the goodness He has put in them, I come one step closer to loving them too.