When we think we’re out for a quiet day of blissful solitude with our book in tow and a glass of wine in hand, the universe has a funny way of surprising us. Through unplanned happenstances, it shows us what our soul was needing to grow at that very moment, we just might not have known it yet. Life can be quite ironic like that: sending messengers into our paths disguised as strangers to help us learn lessons about ourselves. Ultimately, it is these learnings that propel us forward in our human journeys to become better people.
It was a calm afternoon in a sunlit Barcelona plaza when I met Carlos: an elderly local Spanish man who would end up teaching me more about myself in a 10 minute period than I ever thought possible. However, our interaction didn’t exactly begin with pleasantries, as I initially found myself dismissing this man as he begged me to buy him a cup of coffee.
On the phone with a friend and sipping a glass of Rioja, my programmed response was to shoo away the encroaching stranger without even listening to the words coming from his lips; without taking a moment to hear him or to look him in the eye because I was too invested in my own happenings.
It took a few moments for the residual guilt of my cavalier actions to soak in, and to process that all this man wanted was a simple cup of coffee. That was it. Hanging up the phone with my friend and watching him walk away from my table, I could finally feel the sincerity and innocence of his meager request. But it was too late. He was already out of reach – his silhouette diminishing into the setting sun’s glare.
I wanted to wave him down and tell him to comeback, but realized yet again I was trapped within the cage of my own ego: What would people think if I were to cause a scene running across the plaza to catch his attention? What if the waiter thinks I abandoned my table without first paying my check? The social constrains bound me to my chair with a ball and chain.
As I sat there paralyzed by inhibition and insecurity, I watched the stranger go up to every table in the entire plaza, making the same plea for a cup of coffee. His grey head hung low and his ego was nonexistent as he hopelessly went from table to table. Waves of sadness washed over me as I gazed person after person dismiss him so carelessly without even an eye’s glance, just as I had done minutes prior. Is this what we have become as a society? Are we programmed to shut out those in need when we may have the resources to help them? My mind was flooding with such reflections. It was like looking into a mirror and seeing the darker side of myself; the side of myself that I never want to have swallow the good within. I have faith that we can do better, I tried to convince myself.
Finally able to flag him down, I signaled for the man to come back, telling him that I would gladly buy him a cup of coffee. What I didn’t expect was for this man to take a seat at my table and to learn so much about his life in the next 10 minutes.
I soon learned his name was Carlos. He is a local here from Barcelona, living in my same quiet neighborhood of Gracia. He lost everything a few years back due to unfortunate circumstances, and has been living in a group home here that provides housing and food to those in need. He does not drink alcohol and does his best to prioritize his health. When asked about his family, Carlos told me that they are all dead and that he never had any kids of his own.
Despite his seemingly destitute conditions, not a minute passed where Carlos didn’t express gratitude for his living situation. He gleefully spoke of the lovely people with whom he gets to cohabitate and share time. He talked about the delicious meals served at the group home, and how there are weekly paella nights, which are his favorite. While he is provided ample food and shelter, there is not a drop of coffee in the entire residence; And being a true Spanish man, Carlos noted this is quite the deficit to live without.
We exchanged words for some minutes, and I felt his kindred spirit as we grew to know each other a bit better. The stranger who minutes earlier I had ignored and dismissed was now a friend with a story of his own; a story that would bring immense light to my own shortcomings and areas in need of growth.
This got me thinking: It’s sometimes habit to dismiss those begging for our money or resources because we would rather not see these people; it’s easier not to see them. We would rather not look into their eyes and see their hurt, feel their pain or connect with their struggle. After all, it can spark a range of emotions within ourselves from guilt, to shame, to fear of giving up part of our paycheck needed to pay our rent this month. But oftentimes, it is this fear and our conditioned shield of self-protection that blinds us from our very humanity. It takes a leap of faith to transverse the wall of fear and ego, but it is our humanity that is found on the other side, waiting to cradle us with open arms.
Although I bought Carlos one measly cup of coffee, he helped me in a way much more profound. Carlos reminded me of how we can learn from others who walk completely different paths than our own; how we can empathize with others’ challenges to gain clearer introspection into ourselves, and all for which we should be grateful. He reminded me that we are all cut from the same cloth, and that money and fear can be powerful divisive walls between humans. But most importantly, he reminded me of the sentiment felt when we open our hearts to someone, rather than going through the preconditioned filters in our heads. He showed me the powerful human connections we can cultivate when we live from a place of love.
Sometimes it is the unplanned, messier experiences in life that give us the building blocks we need for growth. And meeting Carlos today was a shining example of just that.