“Welcome, stranger.You shall be entertained as a guest among us. Afterward, when you have tasted dinner, you shall tell us what your need is.” – Telemechos to disguised Athena (the Odyssey)
We cannot know what someone else’s story is just by looking at them.
While working at the soup kitchen this week, I was washing dishes in a sink near the large stove, and talking with some guests in the line. At one point, I happened to glance across the dining hall and saw a face I recognized, but not from the house of hospitality itself. I recognized this person from night clubs. He is often around, handing out postcards for other events, hanging out, talking. A very friendly man. Here he was, eating a bowl of soup and some salad, cup of water in front of him. Giving him his privacy, I figured if he happened to see and recognize me and wanted to talk, he would come over. He did not.
This small event brought several things home to me, one of which was the reminder that we just don’t know the circumstances in which most people around us live. Unless they tell us – and sometimes even then – we are most often making our assessments from superficial cues, including context. One other thing this brought home to me is how grateful I feel for my life. I often give thanks at the kitchen, mostly for the joy of being there, working in community. Some days, when a person comes in who is obviously really hurting – whether from too many drugs and drink, or some internal demons, or simply pain, harshness, and the effort to get by – I give thanks for my life, and the blessings of my life.
The Gods have been good to me. Yes, I’ve struggled. Yes, I’ve been poor. Yes, I’ve felt lonely, angry, ashamed, bereft. Yes, I was raised with adversity. Yes, I’ve had chronic pain and illness. And… Various component pieces – including education, intelligence, some talent, the privilege of skin tone, some ambition, some effort, some hard choices, some help, and some luck – all came together to give me a life that makes me feel wealthy. I never want to forget that grace is part of the package.
Any of us could be eating at our local house of hospitality. Any of us could be looking for shelter. Any of us could be masking pain as we walk into work each day. Any of us could – like Athena in the Odyssey – be a Goddess in disguise, masking our glorious nature from the world.
May we bring kindness to ourselves, and be kind to those we meet. May we offer what we can, but no more than we can. May we remember that appearances may disguise many things: an aching heart, a hungry belly, or some bright talent, as yet unrecognized.
We have all been in pain. We have all been in disguise. We all can shine.