Updated on April 14, 2016
To those who feel unseen and unheard…to those who talk without speaking…to those who feel as if their presence is inconsequential:
Don’t believe the lies you have been told.
Believe Truth. Believe this: each of us was created for a purpose. Each of us has so much to offer. The power that resides within us is limitless. Even when this Truth feels empty and inadequate, trust that it’s enough. Why do I seem so sure of this when, almost daily, I feel vulnerable to the allure of the aforementioned lies?
Because one day, almost a year ago, I met someone who changed my life…even though he believed his own life wasn’t worth saving.
* * * * * * * *
He lived in the green rolling hills of Guatemala, tucked away on an old cobblestone street, in a peach-painted assisted-living home. The day I met him, he was removed from the others, hidden under a small tree in the lively courtyard. Despite the fact that most of the residents wore white and blue, my “friend” wore black from head to toe. And despite the fact that the sun was shining and the forecast called for temps in excess of 80 degrees, he wore a turtleneck, zip-up hoodie, and a knit cap. A nonconformist after my own heart, I decided to approach him.
As I neared, I noticed his fixation with the dead leaves he was clearing from the base of the tree. I couldn’t help but wonder how he spent his time in his “past life”…the life he lived before moving into the city to live in this facility…the life he lived before downcast eyes and a sullen brow became as much a part of his daily uniform as his black ensemble.
I shyly approached him, desperately hoping an “hola,” combined with my dimpled smile, would be enough to change his countenance. It wasn’t. Without much prompting, he began to ramble a string of words in Spanish—words about death and despair—words that made me certain this was a divine encounter. A depressed, worn Guatemalan at the end of his life, and an ever-anxious, self-loathing American at the beginning of her life, meet in a sunny courtyard…come on, it sounded like the start of a joke.
As he continued to speak about the darkness he faced on a daily basis, I so desperately wanted to respond…I needed to. See, I knew darkness all too well—during my years in silence, it seemed as if it was one of my only companions. It tempted and taunted me as it reached out its hand and encouraged me to partner with it in taking over the world. Yet I never accepted, for I had befriended something more powerful than darkness—light. Light walked alongside me and whispered words that somehow drowned out the screams of darkness. Light said, “Stay. You matter.”
“Stay. You matter…”
My new friend needed to hear those words. He needed to become acquainted with light. He needed to know that hope was real, and that despite hardships, life was still so beautiful, and worth living. As I searched my mind for the words to speak in Spanish, I felt an all too familiar surge of anxiety erupt within the pit of my stomach, the lava spiking my vocal chords. As much as I wanted to help this man banish darkness and see light triumph, as much as I wanted to speak words of inspiration, I just wasn’t sure if I could.
* * * * * * * *
Despite my ever-present desire to learn about different cultures, I can’t adequately express how much I HATED studying Spanish in school. See, severe social anxiety, combined with Selective Mutism, does not bode well with the group exercises, verbal games, and mandatory oral speeches required on a daily basis. While other students were able to participate in the activities, I sat alone in my silent bubble, looking at everyone from a distance. The hours I spent studying the language over a period of 10 years were some of the most painful of my entire schooling. Despite my longing to see the world, my time in Spanish class left scars so deep, I vowed to never step foot in a Spanish-speaking country (how I ended up in Guatemala is another story). I couldn’t wait to be free from such daily torture.
Much to my dismay, college brought the threat of more torture, as I soon discovered a new set of language requirements for graduation. This time, I needed to take two years of foreign language classes or demonstrate an above-intermediate-level proficiency. Because I couldn’t bring myself to register for another language class, I crossed my fingers and hoped for a miracle. The next three years were filled with questions, emails, more questions, and tears, as I desperately tried to find a way to escape without adding another layer of scars to my already wounded self. In addition to being unsuccessful, the realization hit me that I had completely messed up and graduating with my class was now in jeopardy. I threw up endless prayers and waited…and waited…and waited…
My prayers were answered when, the summer before my senior year, jumping at the chance to explore a new culture and “add to my passport stamp collection,” I applied for and was awarded a summer research internship in Indonesia. I enrolled in an intensive two and a half month study of Bahasa at the local university, and that, combined with an additional year of classes back at school, would fulfill the requirement. Freedom was within my grasp…or so I thought.
Everything was now in place, but I still had to actually get through the classes—a feat easier said than done. Rationalizing that once I was a “local,” I would suddenly overcome my fears, was only fooling myself. The intense anxiety I felt in high school came rushing back with an even greater force than ever before. I felt paralyzed and was unable to speak (again). I feigned ignorance, crossed my arms, and avoided eye-contact (I was an expert at making teachers feel too uncomfortable to call on me).
It was a long and incredibly hot summer…that soon turned to fall…and then winter. The anxiety that I was previously able to “effectively manage” in my other classes, completely engulfed me. I had trouble concentrating as I ruminated over my inability to participate. I began to slowly shut down and question the purpose for my existence. I became a walking shadow, a poor player even as I strutted across the graduation stage (Macbeth 5,5, 24-25).
Darkness was never as appealing to me as it was then.
* * * * * * * *
Sitting with my Guatemalan friend, shaded by the small tree as I thought about Spanish…and Bahasa…and darkness, I felt the rays of 1,000 suns. I was furious. Furious that irrational fears controlled me my entire life and kept me silent…furious that I continued to be tempted by darkness…furious that by not speaking, darkness was once again going to triumph.
In a moment of intense bravery, I took a deep breath, ignored the beckoning hand of darkness and allowed light to speak through me. I talked to my new friend about joy, small miracles, and the gift of life. I talked about hope and trust. I talked with words I didn’t think I knew how to say—words that left a hint of a smile on my friend’s face. I talked with power I didn’t think I had and was left with the feeling that I had reached a turning point. Darkness had lost its hold on me, and I vowed I would become fluent in both Spanish and Bahasa in the near future.
That conversation with my new friend changed me. In his own brokenness, he helped me break through my life-long fear of speaking in a language that wasn’t my own. He helped me find freedom in the unlikeliest of places—in a country I swore I would never step foot in. It was then that I realized on a deeper level than ever before, that no matter how useless someone feels, or how much they may hate themselves or the world, they are here for a reason. My friend was here for a reason.
I am here for a reason.
You are here for a reason.
It is inconsequential as to whether or not you ever figure out that reason. You are alive, and someone needs you. Now. Even though each of us is a work in progress, we can be used by someone along every step of our journey. We simply need to be willing to be used. When we begin to surrender our fears, quiet the voices in our heads, and choose to be a part of the world, we will find the power to change someone’s life—maybe even our own.
Sadly, I don’t know what became of my friend. I don’t know if he’s still sitting under trees, clothed in black. I don’t know if he still feels unseen and unheard. And I don’t know if he’s since been tempted to welcome back darkness. But I pray he decided to stay. I pray he understands that he matters. I am doubtful that my friend realizes the impact that he had on my life, but I am hopeful that he realizes the power that resides within his otherwise weak body.
Perhaps you are unaware of the ways you have changed someone’s life. Perhaps you are unaware of the power that resides within you. But believe me when I say it’s true. Remember MY someone. Pay attention to the someones in your life. And dare I say, be the someone.