Aside from a perimeter fence, the only thing that separates our rear property line from the parking lot of College Acres Baptist Chuch is a narrow row of trees.
Except for Wednesday night and Sunday morning, the lot stays quiet—and quite peaceful I might add. But not too long ago, it provided the setting for a fateful encounter with a homeless man who taught me one of life’s greatest lessons.
It is a lesson that will serve us in more ways than we could possibly imagine if we simply learn to cultivate it.
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My wife called me at work and I immediately sensed the uneasiness in her voice.
“Matt, there’s a man behind the house. I think he’s sleeping beside the dumpster in the church parking lot.” She didn’t have to say it out loud, but I knew she wanted me to rush home.
“Ok. I’ll be right there,” I said, slightly nervous to confront the situation.
When I arrived, I paused for just a moment, peering through the foliage of the trees. I’ll admit, it was eerie. Not because he was homeless, but because like that couch, this man was discarded.
And not from someone’s living room in an attempt to redecorate, this man was discarded from society.
As I approached him, lying on the old, weather-worn couch, I noticed his bicycle resting against the dumpster. It’s as if he was riding by on his bike, saw this lonely, abandoned couch, torn from years of abuse, and said, “I know how you feel.”
In that moment, maybe this couch was the most relatable thing in his life.
My motions woke him from his sleep and I felt bad for disturbing his peaceful rest. His name was Charlie.
Charlie told me about his accident, the one that left his legs incapacitated and contributed to his current condition. He talked about women and booze and he even showed me his knife that he kept “for safety reasons.”
As the conversation progressed, I didn’t really have any advice to offer and I wasn’t sure what to say. But what I began to understand is that advice is not what he wanted. He just wanted someone to listen.
For the longest time, I’ve found my identity in providing perspective, or an answer, or an opinion, or a solution. But this day, for a brief period of time, Charlie challenged me in a new way.
He taught me to listen.
I’m learning that sometimes, that’s the most generous thing we can do.
Pregnant with Answers Before We Listened to the Question
There’s a deep need in our culture to start caring for other people—caring enough to listen.
In a modern era that is pregnant with answers, no one seems to have enough compassion to listen to the question in the first place. From FoxNews to CNN, Bill Maher to Bill O’Reilly, one thing remains: no one is quiet for long enough to even hear what the other people are saying.
My time with Charlie begs the question:
What would happen if we shut up long enough and cared deeply enough to actually listen to the other person?
I’m not suggesting that what the other person has to say is always right, or beneficial, or even worth listening too. But I am suggesting is that we, as people, need to care enough to listen to those who cross our path.
Listening is an act of compassion—a practical application of humility—that only requires one thing: hanging up your agenda long enough to hear beyond your prejudices.
My good friend, Tom Morris, told me that we need to cultivate both nobility and humility in our lives. When I asked him what he meant, he said, “Nobility is understanding that we all have a purpose, humility is understanding that everyone else has one as well.”
I thought that was fantastic.
Everyone has a story. The problem is, we’re too busy telling our own. It’s only when we listen that we find a common thread in the stories we encounter.
Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to engage with society’s discarded on multiple occasions. Beneath the surface of homelessness and race and gender and social status, our struggles and our fears are all oddly familiar.
Decisions and circumstances may have led us down a dark road, but in the midst of the darkness, we all long for the light of hope to shine on our path.
As Charlie and I concluded our conversation, his eyes softened and his voice followed. As he raised his head, I saw beneath the weathered facade and I heard him say, “Thank you.”
Our brief encounter reminded me to be available, to remove my prejudices, and to listen.
Because that’s what hope is made of.
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About the Author:
Matt Ham is a speaker and author who helps people uncover a whole life. His Amazon Best-Seller, Redefine Rich, takes a fresh look at richness and provides a new perspective on the good life.
Matt, his wife, Liz, and their three sons live in Wilmington, NC.
To inquire about having Matt speak, please visit www.mattham.com/speaking