Essay: The Better Angels Of Our Nature

Aug 20, 2018

No matter how well we present ourselves to the world, underneath we are all made up of contradictions. Lake Effect essayist Linda Flashinski was recently reminded of that:

Some of life's most profound lessons come to us in unexpected places and at unexpected times. The homeless shelter I volunteered at some years ago was a panorama of stories, a landscape of feelings, a portrait of the human condition in its many iterations. It was a portrait of fear, love, compassion, anger, and longing. It told many tales.

I first met a homeless man I'll call Lucas on the day he was suspended from the shelter. He came in, a handsome, tall young man in his 30s, strikingly good-looking, not exactly typical of most we saw at this place where despair and pain could be seen etched on the faces of many. Yet Lucas did look a little hazy as he plopped down at a table and laid his head on the flat surface. One of the things that volunteers are so surprised at about shelters is how much homeless residents try to take care of each other and minister to the neediest. And so it wasn't long before a shelter guest, Matthew, sat down next to Lucas and asked, "You okay, man?" Lucas jerked his head up and growled, "What's it to you? Is that any of your business?" Taken aback, Matthew rose to leave. "I was just being friendly." "Well don't be," Lucas snapped back loudly.

For awhile everyone left Lucas alone until a kind, well-meaning volunteer cautiously approached him. "Would you like a cup of coffee or some baked goods?" she coaxed gently. Lucas' response was raucous. "What is this place and who the hell are you? I can get the coffee myself."

The paid staff member, who was trying to give Lucas a chance to calm down, decided it was time to intervene. "You know the rules here," he cautioned. "You are a guest, and you know appropriate behavior." Lucas sprang up suddenly, swore, and appeared to raise his fists. The whole shelter went quiet as the staff member called the security staff. Lucas was suspended for the night.

That wouldn't be such an interesting story for me had I not met Lucas two weeks later during my volunteer shift. Lucas walked into the shelter, only this time he nodded at me and almost smiled. I circulated among the guests as usual, saying hello to them. In awhile, Lucas ventured a quiet "Hello, Linda" to me. I decided to risk it despite his past history, and I sat across the table from him. He asked me, "So, what's your story?" It's rare for a homeless resident to ask about a volunteer so it seemed a curious question. Still, I ventured to tell him a little about myself. Another question followed from Lucas. "So, are you a writer?" I decided to turn the question to him, "Why do you ask? Are you a writer?" He responded that, yes, he writes poetry and he shyly shared with me a notebook filled with his poems. "But really," he said, "I have other plans for my life." "Such as?," I prodded. He gazed off reflectively as he talked about his history of being moved from one foster home to another after his father had left his mom and him, and his mother wasn't able to cope. "My mother tried," Lucas choked up, "but she couldn't manage. I saw her before she died six years ago after years in and out of mental health facilities. She was so scrambled, I think from all those psychiatric meds she was given. That's why I won't take antidepressants or antipsychotics. I saw what they did to her." It was an ironic statement coming from someone who had his own addiction issues.

Lucas glanced down at the notebook on his lap. "In the fall, I am going to take classes to get a social work degree. My dream is to counsel kids who are in foster care. I think my story could help them." Indeed, I think to myself. His story has touched me.

Even that is not the end of my saga with Lucas. Three weeks later, I ran into the shelter board president and told him about the thoughtful, focused Lucas who had shared a deep conversation with me. The director shook his head sadly. "I'm afraid Lucas is in legal trouble now. He used some street drugs and got quite violent." He then paused thoughtfully. "You know, the road to sobriety is a long one and it is riddled with ups and downs. I am glad he has a goal, though. It might help him to become one of the ones who make it."

I do know how complicated addiction, recovery, relapse, and embracing life really is. And I also know how often what we see is only a part of the whole. I want to believe that Lucas will make it, but I know that this is yet to be seen. As he rides his roller-coaster journey of past and present sadness, I hope he finds it within himself to address his addiction issues and to renew his dreams.

It is notable that what we see of any one person at any one time is just a snapshot of the whole of them, a snapshot of their troubles or of their aspirations. To judge anyone based on one picture in time is at best naïve and, at worst, destructive. Will Lucas find what Lincoln called "the better angels of his nature," or will his demons of the past and the present prevent him from finding his way? No one can know. What we do know is that Lucas, and all of us, have inner struggles between the strengths and the weaknesses within ourselves. I remember often a quote that Mr. Rogers carried around in his wallet, "There is no one you couldn't love if you knew their whole story."

So find yourself, Lucas. Find that guy who discovered the better angels of your nature on a cold December night in a homeless shelter. You can remind others, just as you reminded me, of how to struggle through your own breakage to find redemption. Yours is quite a story. Tell it.

Lake Effect essayist Linda Flashinski lives and writes in Caledonia, Wisconsin.