En route to a family gathering, I was involved in a head-on collision with life.
The day had begun like every other Saturday, with coffee brewing, cartoons blaring, dog barking, and teenagers sleeping through it all. Soon enough, we found ourselves humming along the expressway, the tires of our SUV mindlessly dipping and swerving between potholes.
Stuffed in the back of the car, along with our children, were snacks, oversized bottles of Fiji water, and an air of excitement.
I glanced out the front windshield to assess the traffic, and that was when I saw him. Had I been thinking about my grocery list or wondering whether I had answered all my emails, I might have missed him.
On the side of the road stood a man. He was dirty and frail, his fingers gripping a sign—too sloppy to read. Car after car passed him by, their windows firmly closed, shutting out the possibility to make a connection. I do not judge them. In many areas, homeless people on the side of the road are as common as deer grazing in suburban neighborhoods. I have walked by many myself.
But this time, I knew we had to stop.
The contrast was not lost on me that, through the open window, we handed him an expensive, organic chicken salad. Our worlds—this man’s and ours—collided, causing an unsuspecting shame that reddened my cheeks; a contrast so stark for all we had and all he did not.
Our eyes met. I felt his desperation pass through me as chills. Through a toothless smile, he nodded thanks. The entire interaction took less than 15 seconds, yet it is a moment I will remember forever.
Upon returning home, we all plunged into the security of our warm beds. Sleep escaped me as I thought about the man. His face etched in my mind like the dirt beneath his fingernails. Where is he sleeping? Is he mentally ill or just unlucky? How can one live on the streets, day after day?
I then touched my warm blankets in gratitude, knowing we have no control over life. We can all lose everything in an instant. I experienced that lesson years ago, with an unexpected, full-term pregnancy loss.
We have all had opportunities to be in gratitude for what we’ve been given in life. Some obvious, far-reaching, and heart-wrenching, like watching our loved ones walk through the door after 9/11, the birth of our children, and witnessing wedding vows. While others seem less obvious, as easy to miss as a person holding the door for us or a mama bird building her nest.
Why do most of us wait for the obvious? We share our affections on birthdays, during the holiday season, or when we hear of someone escaping unharmed from a car accident. And then we forget. We see the beauty of the sun crying farewell tears against the nighttime sky, and we feel grateful. Then we pick up our phones to snap a picture, only to become lured away from this amazing sky to check our email.
We are all so busy; there is barely time to breathe. We are all so conditioned by our physical world that we forget to appreciate it.
I can still feel the deafening silence that circulated within our car after we drove away from the homeless man. I want to believe our children were taking in what occurred, and storing it in a part of their brain under how to become grateful in a world that gives us almost everything we need. That’s my hope, and perhaps too much to assume. But maybe they did feel the auspicious moment that held an even greater importance:
How life always shows us how to do better, and that day it was teaching us about gratitude.
If we all begin to post less and talk more. If we speak less and listen more. If we slow down. If we notice the person serving our dinner, the one pumping our gas, and the love that is within each and every moment, would we not begin to breathe easier, laugh harder, and hug tighter every day? If we admit that most things in life are out of our control, would we not feel the need to cultivate faith and practice gratitude every day?
The answer is yes.
We would all find we have endless opportunities to be in gratitude each day. There are so many forever moments dressed up as ordinary life: a hot cup of coffee, the awesomeness of an automatic dishwasher, the curiosity of a child’s quest for understanding, and the incredible intelligence of the animal kingdom.
We will begin to feel gratitude for everyone who has been in our life. The ones who hurt us, broke our hearts, and the ones who helped us mend. The ones we pass by without a glance, and the ones who force us to take notice, like the homeless man.
In the upcoming year, may we all know the comfort of a warm bed, the taste of a hot meal, the faith that we are never alone, and the belief that we are always loved. And may we all begin to understand how to have gratitude each and every day for the amazing gift we call life.