21 February, 2014
A young man stopped me while walking up a flight of steps in New Orleans many years ago, to ask for twenty-seven cents. His breath reeked of beer, evoking an automatic response, “No, you’ll only spend it on beer.” It didn’t register that he’d asked for an odd amount. As crowds of Jazz Festival tourists brushed past us I tried to sidestep the young man and continue on my way.
He stepped in front of me, saying, “I just want to put the money in my back pocket…not spend it on beer.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said, and as I tried to move away, he again blocked my path.
“Please…let me tell you my story,” he said.
I heard the earnestness in his voice, but sunglasses prevented me from seeing it in his eyes. He was dark-haired, slight of build, and not much taller than me. As people continued to dodge around us, I momentarily wondered why he didn’t ask someone else for money.
He moved his hands towards me as if to hold me there, and again asked me to listen to his story. “I just got out of jail yesterday,” he said. “I was in for three months. My friends bought me beer to celebrate…but, I couldn’t even get drunk…
“My mother threw me out onto the streets when I was fourteen because I didn’t get on with her boyfriend, and that’s where I grew up. I went to jail because I got into a fight defending a friend, but I was hoping to die so I could end the misery in my life. Now I’m back on the streets again… Tomorrow I have this opportunity of going for a job interview as a carpenter…and I want to go… I want to change my life for the better, but I don’t really know how.”
As my mind tried to put jumbled images to his story, I remembered the agonising despair of losing my own mother at thirteen because the new man in her life didn’t want her children in his. I was fourteen when I read in the Bible that “pain begets wisdom” and decided then that I wanted to become wise. Looking back on our meeting, it was as if the young man’s pain brought some of that hard-won wisdom to the surface, enabling me to speak these words:
“Love yourself… I know you’ve grown up believing that your mother didn’t love you, but it is okay for you to now love yourself. If you can do that, you will learn how to change your life for the better.”
The young man removed his sunglasses. Through his tear-misted eyes I saw questions. “How do I learn to love myself?” he asked.
“Some people think it’s vain to love yourself, but I’m not talking about loving what you look like on the outside; I’m talking about the beauty that’s within.”
I told him how I had started my own journey to love myself by treating myself as my own best friend. After reading that we all need to learn to accept ourselves in the present moment with all our flaws and faults, I wrote down a long list of everything that was ‘wrong’ with me. And then I learned that I also had within me the corresponding positive traits of all the flaws I thought I had.
For example, if I think weakness is a fault, there are hidden strengths within me I can develop, and so on. In this way I was able to stop focusing on what was ‘wrong’ with me and instead focused on developing their opposite positive trait. For me it was like going on a treasure hunt to find the good things inside me I never knew were there.
When I finished speaking, the young man looked at me without saying a word for a few moments. And then suddenly there was so much to talk about. Finally he said, “Will you pray that I’ll wake up in time for my interview tomorrow morning?”
I told him I would, and offered him more money than he had asked for.
“I just want twenty-seven cents,” he said.
I hesitated for a moment, fumbled in my purse…and then placed twenty-seven cents into his hand. He thanked me and said, “I just want to put it in my back pocket…for luck. I’m twenty-seven years old.”
I gave him a hug good bye and went on my way. Late that afternoon as I headed into Biloxi, the sight of a huge hazy orange sun sinking into the sea stirred the still raw emotions of our meeting. As I prayed for him, tears ran down my cheeks. The sun became a blur through the windscreen. I thought about the difficulty of my own ongoing struggle to learn to love myself enough to make life affirming choices and knew then why that young man had asked me for twenty-seven cents.
And now, after over thirty years of rebuilding myself from the inside out, I know in my heart that if we could all learn to love ourselves, the bitterness and anger and violence in relationships, and the wars we wage against other countries, against other races, and against people of different religions would cease to exist.
By loving ourselves we receive the gift of inner peace.
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