Let me tell you the story of James.
James was a 40-something cook. A hit-and-run driver flattened him while he was riding his bicycle home from work. His left leg had to be reassembled with rods, a plate and screws. His employer didn’t offer health insurance, so all of that hardware and subsequent surgeries wiped him out financially.
Prescription drugs took the edge off the pain, until the drugs ran out along with the money. James wound up living on the streets, sharing needles to get some relief.
A lump appeared one day. He had no money so he avoided going to a doctor. The lump grew so big that he had no choice. It was cancer. It had spread throughout his body.
Too late. He had a couple months to live.
James was taken to an old, depressing nursing home. I visited him as a hospice volunteer. The first time we met, James was sitting in a wheelchair in the common area. When I introduced myself, he seemed disinterested.
There was a feral quality to him – distrustful of people after surviving on the streets for so long.
Over time, he opened up a little bit. We didn’t have much in common, so our conversations were superficial – the coffee was cold today, his leg was hurting more. He seemed to appreciate having someone to listen.
Soon it was December, and James’ health was fading. During one of my visits, he was sitting at a table in the common area with a few Hershey’s kisses and one candy cane that he received during their Christmas party. He picked up his candy cane and offered it to me.
“Would you like this?” he said.
In that moment, I thought: James doesn’t have much in life. It’s his only candy cane. This is his last Christmas.
“No thanks, James,” I said. “You enjoy it. It’s yours.”
Immediately, his blue eyes showed disappointment. I should have changed my mind and accepted it. I didn’t. I never got another chance. James died a few weeks later.
I wish for a do-over on the candy cane.
James comes to mind whenever I hear anyone characterize poor people as lazy moochers with nothing to give. How do we know they have nothing to give unless we get close enough to find out?
James tried to give, and I turned him down. He tried to share what little he had, and I said no. Why is that?
I wonder if we distance ourselves from the needy, the immigrant, the refugee because they provide an uncomfortable reminder of how fragile life can be. All it takes is one hit-and-run moment and we’re just like James, scrambling to somehow make it through. We’re one tumor away from lying in a nursing home bed next to him, waiting for someone to come and help us get to the bathroom.
Yes, James had his painkillers – legal and illegal – but don’t we all? Our painkiller of choice might be drugs or booze. Or superficial relationships. Or money. Or praise. Or self-righteousness. Or clinging to the illusion of self-reliance. Or judging those who are going through something we can’t even imagine. We each have our addictions.
Many compassionate people see those like James and try to make their lives a bit better. They share what they have – food, drink, shelter, a visit to someone who is confined in a jail cell or a nursing home bed. And it feels good and divine to do all of that good stuff.
But as James taught me, there’s one more unnerving step to be taken. We have to become vulnerable enough to receive what the other person wants to give to us, too. We have to spend time with them and listen to them and get to know them.
And recognize the immense value of who they are and what they offer us. A gospel story tells of a poor widow who gave more than anyone else because her two coins were all that she had. Sometimes the least gesture represents the greatest generosity.
Like a candy cane.
I understand now that it’s arrogant to think someone who is struggling has nothing important to offer me. The problem isn’t with them, but with me. If I can’t accept their generosity, then maybe I’m the one who is truly needy.
To borrow from Francis, it’s in giving that we receive, that’s true. But it’s also true that in receiving, we give as well. And in that divine intersection between giving and receiving, we all get what we need most in life.
Love. We need generous love.