A few weeks ago, a man got on the train and I immediately averted my eyes.
His torso was bare and dirty and full of scars. There were disfigurements on his arms that looked like they had been slashed in many different ways. His hair was “Jesus hair” – long and brown and disheveled. And it dawned on me, more slowly than I like to admit, that this man was once again the presence of Christ in my midst, carrying a dirty blanket onto the train.
I wondered what he had survived. I wondered how he got to be so strong and resilient and what his childhood was like. I wondered if he knew anyone, anyone at all, that cared about him like I care about my husband or my brother. Did he know deep down in his soul that he would leave an irreplaceable hole behind when he died? Or had the world been telling him for years that he was entirely disposable, entirely on his own?
And now that I recognized Christ on the train, what was I supposed to do about it? This is the question that has always haunted me, the question I can never reconcile with the reality of my life. I was carrying no cash, no food, nothing I could give to him as a token of beauty or understanding. He was not facing me, so I had no opportunity to meet his eye and offer a smile. And if I did, would he receive it well? Would he take it as unintended pity or some other message? If I came up to him from behind, would I be perceived as a threat?
Questions like these roll around my mind for the two stops he is on the train. And then, just as suddenly as he got on, he got off. And that was that.
In the end, I did nothing. This man will never know that, for three or four minutes, he was the presence of Christ to me. He will never know that of all the people I saw that day, he most resembles the body of the Savior I love and follow.
One of the agonies of my life is that there is no shorthand for deep connection. If only there was a simple, recognizable sign that I could make towards everyone who crosses my path, a sign of blessing and recognition, a sign of respect for all they carry. A sign that I see them as a survivor, as an irreplaceable human soul and an immortal miracle of creation. A smile is the only thing that gets close to this intention. But the truth is that there is no shorthand for the kind of love and wonder that heals the wounds of a human soul. It requires the history of a relationship, not merely a moment of compassion.
Last week while visiting family in Atlanta, my husband and I had the chance to visit the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. At the end, we found ourselves in a small, dark room, reading glass cases of Martin Luther King Jr.’s early rough drafts and handwritten notes. I realized how often I have merely read this great man’s work in snippets or quotations, and missed the greater context of his vision for human brotherhood.
Learning to recognize the presence of Christ in the people around me is critical. But simply recognizing it is not enough. For if I truly believe that my life is inescapably intertwined with the lives of those around me, caught up in the same network of mutuality, then any suffering of others is my own.
This is what should compel me to not just pass by others with eyes of compassion, but create opportunities for relationship and true communion. Each time I miss an opportunity, I wonder what I could do differently next time. Each time, it puts a greater fire in me to say “yes” when the opportunity presents itself.
Moments like these compel me once again into seeing the individual within the masses, seeing the soul within the body, and remaining open to the icons that walk among me every day.