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The man in the wheelchair

Every evening as I leave the office I walk by a little man sitting in a wheelchair parked on the sidewalk, just out of the way of passersby. He has long scraggly hair, a long scraggly beard, and only one leg. It’s hard to tell his age – he’s no longer young, but he’s not terribly old either. What seems obvious is that he’s not altogether there, as he sits, cap in hand, turning his head from side to side, muttering to no one in particular and looking no one in the eye.

At least, that’s what I thought, until one day I stopped to offer him a blueberry muffin, and I looked into his face. He seemed startled, maybe because for once someone looked at him and saw a person. I know I was startled, because looking into his eyes I saw a soul.

He took the muffin, nodded and said, “Thank you, dear.” He has deep-set, dark blue eyes. I smiled into them for a moment longer and moved on. From that day I’ve tried to catch his eye every time I pass. One time he recognized me and said, “Nice to see you, ma’am.” Most times he’s too busy turning his head this way and that – a funny habit of his.

I started to wish that there was something more I could do to help him. And then today as I passed by him I noticed his glove had fallen onto the sidewalk by his wheelchair. I stepped near to him and stooped to pick it up. Again that startled expression, followed by a quick little nod and a thank you.

And it was then that it struck me. As much as we would like to get rid of all the suffering in the world, often this is all we can do for each other. A little treat. A smile. A small act of service. A prayer that the other person has a warm place to go at night. Or – the simplest and yet probably the most important thing – just looking into people’s eyes to let them know that you see them, that you know they exist, and are glad that they do.

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