Yesterday, I made a mistake that could have become a real hassle. I went into town to run a few errands and ended up at a large shopping center. When I got out of the car, I had a hand full of trash and my car keys in my hands. I headed for one of those large trashcans located at the entrance of the store. It had a flip-top opening. I open the flipper door and dumped in my trash and unthinkingly, also my keys. Off I went into the store to shop ignorant of my mistake.
When I left the store 15 minutes later, I did my normal pocket pat down looking for my keys. After a few moments of patting down my pockets like a frantic bongo drum player, the shock hit me, “I lost my keys!” In my developing sense of shock, I finally realized where they were. They were in the trashcan! I hurried over to the can and opened the plastic flip door and stuck my head inside. There was my pile of trash still on top of the other trash. As I looked into the dark interior of the trashcan, I saw the slight glimmer of the end of a single key. I had to pull out some of the trash to get to my keys. I found them! On the keychain were keys and key fobs to our vehicles, house keys, and all the keys that unlocked all the other locks in my world. I was so relieved. Then another reality hit.
Jan and I are on vacation. I had not shaved in a few days. I was wearing some old work clothes. I looked a little rough. Then it hit me. I fit the image of a poor homeless guy going through garbage looking for cans or maybe something to eat. One man walking into the store looked over at me with compassion and started to make his way toward me. I could sense I was about to be slipped a couple of bucks to get something to eat. I raised my head and gave a weak smile to all the other folks who were also watching me. With keys in hand and my trampled pride in tow, I hurried off to my car talking out loud to the Lord thanking Him for the keys when I realized talking to one’s self in public after rummaging through a garbage can might affirm someone’s original suspicion.
Jan and I have people in our lives that we love dearly who struggle with mental illness. That condition has led some of them into seasons of homelessness. We have a new level of compassion for people in that situation. We don’t look through them. We look at them, and when nudged by the Lord, we help them out. This was different. Digging through the trash and realizing I was being viewed as a homeless person struck a deep chord within my heart. It hit something more profound than my initial response of shallow pride. I realized I was only looking for keys. In a few minutes, I would go home to a clean house, a wonderful wife, and a hope-filled future. My experience was only a personal embarrassment. Those who walk our streets and eat our garbage don’t have that blessing.
The next time I see someone digging through the trash in a public place, I want to recall my experience trying to find my keys and what I felt that day and then multiply it by a thousand times before I start to interact with someone. I want to remember the need for personal mercy before I open my mouth or give someone something to help them out. None of us know the full story of another person’s life. Compassion and kindness are powerful things to experience in a world that has grown so angry, distant, and separated.