The Benefit Of The Doubt

alone in a crowd

The image is still frozen in my mind: The young African-American girl in the bright yellow flower print sun dress standing on the edge of the sidewalk, bearing the unmistakable look of a lost and confused tourist, and the throngs of smartly-dressed churchgoers pouring out of the sanctuary into the steaming hot summer sun in one of South Florida’s most affluent neighborhoods seemingly oblivious to the young girl’s existence, let alone her plight. I remember wanting to give them the benefit of the doubt – to believe that they were so engrossed in powering-up their smart phones and the just-couldn’t-wait conversations that followed that they simply didn’t notice her, that in the heat and their hurry to get to the air-conditioned comfort of their luxury automobiles they simply confused the tears that had begun to spill down the sides of her cheeks for beads of sweat or, perhaps, like those that preceded the Good Samaritan on the road to Jericho, that they were so distracted and consumed with their own problems they simply didn’t have the time or the heart-space required to take on someone else’s and so they continued walking confident that another of their number would play the role and lend a hand if one was needed.

But my heart knew better. Despite being fatigued from having just walked 5 miles, it could see the truth from 25 yards away. It saw the look of confusion morphing into panic on the young girl’s face, her tears for what they were and the unmistakable countenance of feeling invisible – and it insisted that I stop. “Looks like you might be lost,” I said. “Can I help?” Turns out, the young girl had set out hours earlier on a bus from the other side of town, hoping to audition for a part in an upcoming play at a little theater adjacent to the Biltmore Hotel. The closest the bus could get her was about a mile walk from the venue and unguided she had mistakenly set out in the wrong direction. I knew there was no way she could make it on time by foot. Since I lived only a short distance away, I asked if I could borrow her cell phone to call my wife and arrange a ride. She hesitantly obliged and within minutes Cyndy came to pick her up and whisk her off to the theater. While we waited, I shared with her that our daughter also acted in the theater as a young girl and that I knew a little something about auditioning and the nerves that went along with it – an acknowledgement that brought a long overdue and much needed smile to her face. As she got in the car, I wished her well. She thanked me – for caring.

This isn’t about race, nor is it a commentary on Judgmentalism, though it easily could be both. It’s about living with an Attentive Heart. It’s about being on a perpetual scavenger hunt for moments when you can make a difference – and seizing them. It’s about recognizing and then attending to the needs of others. It’s about stepping outside of ourselves and our comfort zones. It’s about giving, about making time rather than making excuses. It’s about the power of one. It’s about the quiet child in the back of the classroom, the one sitting alone on the sideline during afternoon recess, the one leaning against the wall at the school dance – the co-worker who never seems to have company for lunch. It’s about not ignoring the obvious, about what it’s like to be invisible – about the fundamental need/longing that all of us have to feel as if we matter, that someone cares that we exist. It’s about checking in, about showing up, about extending a hand or a hug. It’s about ignoring the well-intended admonition of our childhood and making it a point to talk to strangers. It’s about all the little girls (and little boys) struggling to find their way and their identity in an increasingly complex and impersonal world. It’s about caring – about finding love and then giving it all away.

I’d like to think the young girl I met on the sidewalk that day got the part she wanted – that her go-the-extra-mile efforts that morning were rewarded. I’ve even fantasized about the part serving as a springboard for a career in theater that one day would land her on a Broadway stage, perhaps even entertaining some of those same folks who passed her on the sidewalk that morning without so much as a second glance – save perhaps for one of scorn or contempt. But this much I know for sure: The little girl who got back on that bus was not the same one who got off it. Thanks to the simplest of gestures by a sweat-drenched stranger, she was affirmed, shown compassion – learned that she mattered. There was nothing extraordinary about any of it, except for the broad smiles it permanently imprinted on both of our hearts.

Photograph used was taken by Caroline Gorka.  I encourage readers to check out her and her work at:

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