October 17th, 2006

On Sincerity

Today I interviewed a homeless man.

 

It’s not the kind of thing I often do. I’ve never been an investigative journalist, nor even a particularly newsy kind of writer. I gravitate more toward the interesting-people-places-and-events sort of stories that used to fall under the umbrella of “human interest.”

 

And, actually, the story for which I interviewed Joe is one of those feature-y stories, about the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the people it helps. (I’ve also interviewed two women on parole for this piece. The last time I wrote a feature on the Society, I went to a trailer they have outside a jail in central Santa Ana and interviewed some of the recently released people who stopped in for a hot cup of coffee and a phone call to get a ride. There is rarely a dull moment in the life of a freelancer.)

 

Joe was a little nervous, so I gave him one of my pat responses: “Don’t worry, it’ll be practically painless.” Usually that gets a chuckle and puts my subjects a bit more at ease before I start asking how they spell their names and how old they are. But Joe just said, “Aw, pain doesn’t worry me.”

 

I don’t often get such raw sincerity. It made me pause, because that’s something that’s so been on my mind lately: that avoiding pain is often just a way of avoiding life itself, of trying to hide yourself away and—perhaps—succeeding so well that you end up untouched by anything at all, bad or good. 

 

We headed into the interview, and Joe was great. He has no problem talking about homelessness, though he didn’t want to discuss the issues that led him from his job as a county planner to living out of his car (he did lose a woman, he admitted, but then he shook his head and shifted subjects). He was articulate and thoughtful. The toughest part was trying to scribble fast enough to keep up with him.

 

When we stood up at the end of the interview and shook hands, he smiled and told me he hoped he’d see me around the St. Vincent de Paul office where we met. “When they introduce me to a girl as good-looking as you,” he said, “well—I mean—I just feel real comfortable with you.”

 

That’s the best compliment I’ve received in some time (best two compliments, actually), made all the more meaningful by his sincerity. (And probably still more meaningful in contrast to my recent visit to Foxfire.) And then that got me thinking, as I drove slowly home, how rare it is to encounter sincerity in the people around us—how rare it is to encounter a person who shares what he is really thinking.

 

I worry about revealing myself too much, exposing too much surface area of emotion where I can be hurt; maybe you worry about that too. But pain is part of living, isn’t it? And we all waste so much time hiding from each other, trying to protect our tender underbellies.

 

That’s the great thing about kids (not all of them, though! Some get sly very early on indeed): they haven’t been batted around enough to have developed that wraparound shell. In just three weeks of my third-grade class at St. Norbert’s, I’ve been reminded again and again how willing kids are to do goofy things, say silly things, act crazy, and just plain old, flat out, undeniably be themselves.

 

And because their classmates are all the same exact way, none of this equates to exposing themselves to ridicule.

 

This year I have a special ed student in my class. Last week was her first time with the other kids, and with me. I was a little worried how I would manage. I don’t have any experience with special ed kids, and I didn’t want to slow the other kids down so she could keep up—nor did I want her to feel completely out of her depth.

 

It went far better than I could have expected. When I offered her an opportunity to read out of our atrocious textbook, she did great. At one point in our ensuing discussion, she raised her hand and offered a very good answer to the question, “And just who is our neighbor that we are supposed to love as we love ourselves?” (“Kids in orphanages,” she said.)

 

I could tell that some of the other students knew there was something different about her. I noticed one boy, who is a little too sharp for his own good, giving her a very considering look. But there was no teasing; there were no snide remarks; there was just the casual acceptance that the very young have the gift of offering. Casual, but sincere.

 

All of which is, I suppose, my roundabout way of suggesting to myself that I could do worse than emulate Joe and my little monster third-graders. After all, someone has to make the sincere first move—and it might as well be me.  

 

(You think this was painfully earnest? You should see the entry I was going to post!)