Tuesday, December 9, 2008

NYC: A Prayer for the Afflicted

Last Saturday afternoon, December 6th, I descended the stairs into a subway station in midtown Manhattan. I wasn't on the platform for more than 10 minutes when I saw a man hobbled down the stairs, struggling a little with each step. I watched as he walked over to one of the posts where he propped himself up and waited with the rest of us for the next train. I don't know how commuter traffic normally is, but I imagine it is much like it was that day every day. Not too crowded, but enough so that from time to time you would need turn your body a bit to let others by.

Apart from his obvious impairments, there wasn't anything at all assuming about this man's appearance. He seemed somewhat disabled and that seemed to be that. One wouldn't feel an overbearing sense of pity for him because, at a glance, he carried himself as if it had been his condition his entire life.

It must have been about noon when the train pulled up to the platform. The doors opened and a steady diffusion of people getting off and getting on ensued. With a polite chime, the doors closed and we were off. I looked around at the bodies and faces around me, as I, like many I suppose, are prone to doing. I studied each one only for a moment, guessing where they might live, from which country they originated, and wondering whether or not English was their first language, assuming they spoke it at all. And then, quite by chance, my eyes landed on the same man who had struggled down the stairs.

As the train got up to traveling speed, he rose and made his way to a pole in the center where propped himself up again. In a deliberately loud voice, loud enough to surpass the murmur of conversation and the clanging of the train, but not loud enough to startle, he began to speak. There's little of what he said that I remember verbatim, but I remember clearly his introduction:

"Excuse me everyone! Can I have your attention please? I'm a little embarrassed to do this ..."

He spoke slowly. One could hear some manner of impairment in his speech, but it was clearly not a substance-induced slur. In this moment that seemed about 10 times as long as it was, I studied his face. The left side seemed disfigured; something I hadn't noticed on the platform. It looked almost like the gradual tug of time and gravity on a man of 70 years, yet there was hardly a trace of a wrinkle. In that same instant I also realized that it was the left side that slouched. His right side seemed to carry his weight and direct his awkwardly propelled momentum.

He carried on, explaining how he had recently suffered a stroke which had attacked primarily the left side of his body, rendering him partially disabled and disfigured. His face was not marred by time, gravity, or some corrosive material. It was wrenched and twisted by involuntary muscular distress. In his thick New York accent, he explained that he had been going to physical therapy for several months now, and that it had been going pretty well.

The train stopped and the diffusion of crowds commenced again. Just before the stop, he began to struggle with completing his thought. The stop didn't seem to be the trigger as he had started struggling just prior. It wasn't until after the train had started moving again that he was able to get back on track. He finished by saying that his union had said he should be able to return to some light lifting in several months time, and he was encouraged by that. Then he proceeded with how his condition had affected his family, saying that they were doing pretty badly. He had two children, both in school, and was unable to provide them with sufficient clothing.

He could have been lying for all I know. Call it naivety, but he did not seem to be of deceitful character and he certainly wasn't faking the marring on his face. He was clearly uncomfortable about asking for help, but he did it because he felt he had to. It was difficult to watch, not just because of the social awkwardness, but because for some reason I felt this sense of embarrassment for him. I'm not sure why; perhaps because it was a pitiful display of how unable he was to take care of himself. It was sheer vulnerability. I don't know if that's why I felt that way, but as much as I'd like to think it wasn't, I can't think of a better explanation. For him and for others afflicted with incapacitating illness, a prayer:

God you are good. We can only hope to understand even a fraction of your love, and strive to love faithfully as you do, even when we see things that we feel are too cruel to be. To those of us with means God, give us the compassion and willingness to reach out to those encumbered by debilitating health conditions. It's not the ability we lack, it's the softness of heart. Open the eyes, and more importantly the hearts of the people of New York City, so that they are compelled to extend their hands in love to the afflicted. Your love is endless God, and you love the vulnerable. Give us the strength and character to love those struck down; to look past our doubts and our fleeting self-reliance. It could have just as easily been me, Donald Trump, or anyone else in the city that suffered a stroke. Give us the the strength so accept this, and the compassion to live as if the victim had been someone precious to us.

NYC: A Prayer for the Homeless

Somewhere in Manhattan, not too far off from Times Square, Erin and I were walking. It was in the afternoon on Friday, and we were indulging in our exploration just a couple of hours or so before heading to the MoMA. We turned a crowded corner and something caught my eye. It looked like a garbage bag tossed against the side of the building, and we stepped to our right to dodge it. I looked a bit closer as a I passed and realized, to my horror, it was a woman in a tattered blanket.

She was partially lying on the sidewalk, and partially leaning against the wall. It was a strange, contorted position and I can't imagine how it was at all comfortable. Her face was distraught. She looked genuinely afraid and almost as if she were crying. In her hands was a paper cup, which she was clutching with effort and yet failing to hold straight up.

I've never seen a homeless person seem so miserable in this country. Perhaps that sounds naive, but generally when I pass such people they in no way resemble what I saw in her. Sometimes they appear half sane. Sometimes they appear drunk. Sometimes they seem carefree and almost blissful, and other times they seem quite unhappy. However, never before had I seen one of them looking utterly miserable, unhappy, and afraid. It wrenched my heart and I stopped in my tracks, feeling completely helpless.

I regret not doing something, though I can't imagine what I could have done. I could have put my arm around her, I could have sat with her. However, nothing I was capable of doing could have sustained her in any way for more than a few minutes. I thought of the Salvation Army bell-ringers standing at practically every corner, putting on a sideshow to collect the change from passers-by. I thought of the almost theatrical members of the homeless coalition that were as frequently distributed. I was angered at these thoughts. No, it wasn't their fault and yes, they probably did serve the homeless. Nonetheless, something seemed unjust, and my conscience demanded a perpetrator. And so out of helplessness, faith and hope, I offer a prayer for the homeless:

God, have mercy on the downtrodden in New York City. Have mercy on the mentally ill and grace on the irresponsible. To the downtrodden: stretch out your hand over them as members of organizations like the Salvation Army, but also, and perhaps more importantly, through the hands and hearts of the city's inhabitants. May it be placed heavily on them that these people are their brothers and their sisters. That taxation or progressive administrative infrastructure do not remove a shred of the responsibility that each of us share in loving and caring for them with our own hands. They are your children as much as we are. They are as undeserving of your compassion as we are. I pray that we know this, and that we reach out to them in love twice as hard because of this knowledge.