I took the commuter rail into Boston's South Station to visit a sick uncle. While traveling between buildings to connect to the Red Line subway line, I passed a man dragging a wheeled suitcase very slowly down the corridor. He was black, maybe 75, and had his right hand held up, feeling for the door to the outside that gaped before him. I asked where he was headed and learned he was also trying to connect to the Red Line, though travelling in the opposite direction. "Well," I said, "I'm not exactly sure how to get there. But between the two of us, we should be able to find it!" Gradually, it became more and more clear that this man could hardly see at all. When I guided him to the ticket booth, with its bright window beckoning, he stood off to the side, facing a dark, blank section of wall. Wow, I thought. He can't even distinguish light from dark! After helping him buy his ticket, I guided him down several flights of stairs (battling with my own unfamiliarity with the station) and managed to get him on what I hoped was the right train. I bid him a happy new year and used signs to hint about his impairment to his fellow travellers.
My good deed for the season.
Looking back on the experience, what amazed me was that this man was travelling alone. He had no companion, whether friend or family. He had no guide dog. He had nothing except for his memory and maybe some quickly-dispensed tips from others at the station. He had me to be his eyes for a few minutes. But what about the rest of the trip?
I was impressed with this man's trust in others, though. He took my arm with little prompting. He trusted (mostly accurately) that I would not let me set a foot astray. And he was calm. Calm as a placid sea. Where had he learned that level of equanimity? Had he never been robbed, or insulted or had someone jokingly put him on the wrong train? His level of acceptance was in a stark contrast to my own wariness when travelling in the city. I am super-alert, watching for unwanted contact with beggars and thieves, mindful of the pressure of my cell phone in its holster and my wallet in my back pocket. This man had little choice but to trust that he would somehow fumble his way to his destination, maybe with the help of a few kind strangers. Or maybe not.
I'm not sure I want to make a lesson of this man's struggles. It feels mercenary to convert his daily chore of making it from room to room -- even just to the bathroom -- with eyes that barely respond to light. I do wonder, though, about a society so structured that a profoundly blind man must try to get about on his own, without technological, human or animal help.
But it is his level of trust that will always stay with me. He had no idea who I was, or what my expertise was with the Boston subway system. Did he hear something in my voice that allowed him to gauge my compassion quotient? Or would he have taken anyone's hand?
I'm reminded of blind Bartimaeus in Mark's gospel, sitting by the side of the road and crying out for mercy when he heard that Jesus was walking by. I hope that perhaps this man heard Jesus in me as I saw Jesus in him. LIke Jesus, I was able to give "sight" to this man -- if only for for a few minutes -- enough to help him continue his journey.
Even in this age of scientific marvels, we normally don't have the ability to give sight to the blind, or make the lame walk or raise the dead to life. But each time we find a means to be the eyes, or the limbs or the life to those lacking in them, we bring about the bold proclamation that launched Jesus's ministry:
Let us make every year an acceptable year. The seeds of life, healing, hope and light are scattered all around us, waiting to be planted, ready to grow into an abundant harvest.
Happy new year!