Last week, as my father and I were passing through the bright and lofty lobby of a medical center on our way to my routine pulmonology appointment – he, walking along, me, driving my power wheelchair beside him – we saw a woman in chains. There were two deputy sheriffs beside her, badges and guns clearly visible, escorting her toward the soaring, glass-enclosed exit. She was obviously a prisoner, clothed in an orange jumpsuit, either a convicted criminal or someone awaiting trial without bail. She must have needed some kind of medical attention that the prison or jail could not provide – and shackles and guns would make sure that she wouldn’t elude the law and escape. And as we neared each other, heading in opposite directions, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with her.
Because, you see, having noticed her, I was going to have to do something with her. Whatever I did after noticing her would be a response to her, something that I did with her insertion into a brief moment of my life. I would have to make a choice: to ignore and dismiss her, to stare at her, or to blatantly avoid looking at her; to make a comment, crass or kind, to or about her, to chat with my father as if I hadn’t seen her, or to say nothing at all.
This is how interaction with human beings works. We are continually encountering strangers and making decisions regarding them, sometimes more consciously than others. This is not something that we usually keep in mind – or perhaps are even aware of – when we are going out to an office, restaurant, store, or church, but it’s definitely something that we do. We notice and we react.
So, how should we react?
I reacted to the prisoner the way that I have been taught to react to prisoners, or dirty-looking homeless people, or feeble-looking elderly people, or scary-looking tough guys. The reaction has been taught to me over many years through experiences with strangers, especially those who have responded to my reactions to them. And it has been reinforced and deepened through the words of Jesus Christ (yes, him.) It was an intentional reaction, emboldened by the Holy Spirit, yielding what I have come to understand as one of the greatest powers that has been given to me.
What did I do? I made eye contact with the prisoner and I smiled at her as we passed.
Perhaps, you were expecting something more? But I have learned that hardened hearts can soften and sorrowful burdens can lighten in the radiance of God’s love – a glimpse of which shines through my genuine smile.
No boasting here. We are all given gifts, tremendous or tiny, that have the power to change other people’s lives in small, but substantial ways. I wouldn’t choose my powerful gift to be a crooked little smile atop a crooked little body, but that’s how God has seen fit to show forth to others the divine peace and joy that His love brings. This is how God has chosen to work His minor miracles through me – if I let Him.
I’ve learned that my smiling face can enable good things. Some people may learn to appreciate beauty in a new way when they see something divinely striking in an otherwise undesirable form. Some people might get their capacity for empathy triggered by one who is pathetic and undemanding, starting within them a desire to be more gentle. Some may experience a relief from self-pity when they compare their troubles to mine and, seeing how my inner joy is un-quashed, gain a new perspective. And some may receive wordlessly comforting and encouraging sympathy from a person who can lovingly relate to suffering and pain. The renewing, educating, or heartening effect is subtle, of course, and probably only temporary. And I can’t even know when my heartfelt smile does any good at all. It doesn’t always work to soften and lighten, of course, because people aren’t always ready and willing to receive the love that God gives them.
In the looking over at the prisoner that day in order to see one of God’s beloved children (for that’s the first thing that we need to know about every person that we encounter) I had seen that she was about 30 years old, medium build, with dark brown hair and dark eyes. Pretty ordinary looking, even in the context of orange suit, chains, badges, and guns. I had a little difficulty looking her in the eye, but only because I had to force my eyeballs a little painfully up and to the left due to the awkward angle of my flopped over head on my crippled body. However, I did not have to try to get her attention in order to make eye contact with her because, I soon realized, she was already looking at me.
Of course she was. I was the other human being that stuck out oddly in the place. She was bound by heavy metal shackles, hand and foot; I was bound by disease, crumpled up in a mechanized wheelchair. We saw each other in a moment and the look on her face was actually a kind of pleasant one. There may have even been something almost like a smile about her face. She didn’t look tough or scary, or even angry or sad. She looked… almost kind? Perhaps, she was intentionally looking kindly at me as I was intentionally looking kindly at her.
Perhaps, we both saw Christ that day. Perhaps, we both were Christ in that brief, passing moment.
© 2018 Christina Chase
Although crippled by disease, I'm fully alive in love. I write about the terrible beauty and sacred wonder of life, while living with physical disability and severe dependency. A revert to the Catholic faith through atheism, I'm not afraid to ask life's big questions. I explore what it means to be fully human through my weekly blog and have written a book: It's Good to Be Here, published by Sophia Institute Press.