He walked into the diner with his blue windbreaker and disheveled gray hair. His clothes were rumpled and his glasses were slightly askew. In short, he was a mess.
He sat in the booth directly behind us. The odor that emanated from him was bleach mixed with body sweat. It was impossible for us to finish our meal with the unappetizing stench.
I took a good look at the man. He looked to be in his seventies, balding, a bit weird. It was at that moment that I realized how much he reminded me of my dad.
While I know my dad can easily take care of himself, my uneducated Irish immigrant father has a few eccentricities that have embarrassed me over the years. I shudder sometimes when he launches into a story that everyone knows couldn’t possibly be true. He talks to everyone, and I fear that he will end up in conversation with someone who will take advantage of his good nature. It just doesn’t matter who the person is, my dad acts like he’s known him for years.
Kids made fun of me when I was little because “my daddy was a custodian,” a school janitor. I was ashamed of my dad back then.
I began to cry when I really saw this man in the diner. I wondered if his children were embarrassed on account of him. I started being ashamed of my own feelings. Was my dad really so much different from him?
I find it’s easy to have pity for nameless people who are struggling, but what about my own family? Do they become too hard to love? Has a little embarrassment blocked my ability to love my dad? What about others? Is my wife too hard to love when she’s in a bad mood? Am I too hard for others to love when I’m angry or unreasonable?
A friend recently told me that I’m being too hard on myself. That despite how I feel about my family from time to time, I remain devoted to them. He pointed to how I helped my mother get the best health care during a recent hospital stay. He noted how I always have time for my dad. He mentioned how many loving things I do for my wife. He reminded me how I take extra care of family because I can understand their feelings despite the old hurts those feelings bring up for me.
I can also be sensitive to those around me because of my realization of what suffering has done to my family. I become The Wounded Healer as spiritual writer Henri Nouwen so eloquently puts it in his book of the same title. I become a man who walks among those in pain and understands their fears and misgivings. I become God-like—not in an arrogant way, rather in the way we see Jesus, walking among the least of society, not judging, but serving compassionately.
The point is to seek to understand as God did, by becoming one with the poor, in order to understand their experience of life. I become more human, not letting my suffering experiences eat me up, but rather, allowing to transform them into something positive, something stronger, something that makes me able to heal others and, that makes me able to heal my own psychological wounds.
And to love…
I am beginning to realize that just because my parents might be a bit different and our relationship is a bit awkward sometimes, that doesn’t mean I love them any less. In fact, it might mean that I’m able to love not only them, but also others, that much more.
Like that guy in the diner.