It’s easy to judge him with his saggy jeans, eyes that look away from your gaze, and cigarette dangling from his scrawny fingers. We stare and have an 8mm film flicker by of stereotypes that make us think he is bad, dangerous, scary, irresponsible, lazy. We see a man who is able bodied but not of sound mind. We see the work of gangs and a hardened life. It’s so easy to judge those whose lives take a turn from our own safe havens of three square meals, books, college, paychecks, stability, and affection. We take for granted the blanket of goodnight kisses and dinner table laughter that shape us and make us feel like part of a family. We take for granted that we are loved.
There’s a generation of lost men among us who live in despair. They have never known comfort or security. They are frightened yet hardened and trust no one. They lash out. They scowl. They don’t know how to cope. No one ever taught them. Chances are no one ever showed them love, and their laughter was fleeting. This legion of men walks faceless among us, victims of the cyclical nature of abuse, addiction, and poverty. They lack relationship skills and live by a code we cannot fathom. It’s so easy to judge these men whom we assume can’t hold a job, resort to crime, and terrorize others with violence. In truth, these men wield weapons of self destruction.
And they all started as little boys.
I know this much is true.
He had vacant eyes. When any emotion crossed them it was in flickers of fear, rage, and shame. He didn’t smile for a full four months. He never let anyone touch him and had no concept of the power of a simple, pure hug. His fits of rage came in bursts like a camera clicking on the speed setting. Hitting. Punching. Kicking. Screaming. No one should taste the words that spewed from his small pink mouth. He ended in a clump of fitful sleep and deep breathing. He was always too tense to be truly spent and lived his life on edge. His face was chiseled and sweet with deep set eyes that had already seen too much. Those eyes followed you with a stern, untrusting focus.
His sense of observation was acute, and his pulse was keen to what he perceived might threaten him. His short sentences came out as grunts and garbled words. He had seen the hand of violence so many times that the scars would imprint his very soul. He knew hunger and dread and fear and filth. He knew what it was to have nothing and he knew what it felt like to sleep in the crevices of rock bottom. His clothes were ill fitting with a shoestring as a belt, meaning his own shoes were always missing a lace. His coat was tattered and dirty, and he often had no socks. His winter coat was threadbare, and he never knew the warmth of gloves. He never knew the warmth of flannel sheets in bed, a marshmallowy mug of hot cocoa, or the embrace and nuzzle of a father. His eyes told his story. One look made you want to look away and pretend the horror that unfolded before his eyes never intersected your life. He was filled with a rage and fear so large that it more than consumed his tiny frame. He knew what it meant to be alone. It was said he lived in a hovel. It was said he never sat down to a meal at the table. It was said that he didn’t have his own bed or one single book. It was said his mother never tucked him in.
He was five years old.
This little boy touched my heart in a way no child ever has. I faced his wrath and inhaled his pain. I watched him learn basic social skills that children in safe, stable homes learn from day one. I watched him blossom and shine. He expressed himself through art. His drawings were detailed and colorful. Oh, the boy loved color. After many, many months he finally sat on my lap for a story. I read him book after book after book, and I could feel his heart singing against my chest. And then, he smiled. He giggled. He started to laugh.
And the very last time I saw him, he hugged me, and I didn’t want to let go.
We are a stronger, safer society when we look after our own. Imposing our own norms and judgement on those who landed in a different station in life is futile. We must find compassion to look after the lost among us. Funding education (especially early childhood schools), affordable housing, job training, and life skills programs will enrich us, nay lift us, as a society. Every man on the street we so hastily judge started out as an innocent little boy who had to learn how to laugh.