Some years ago, I was riding home on the subway during rush hour.  Of course, the car was packed.  I recall being preoccupied by some petty drama.  At the end of a long day, I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders.  I’m sure you know the feeling.  The subway pulled into a station.  The doors opened and a man hawking newspapers for the homeless entered the car.  Making his way through the packed throng, this elderly African American gentleman headed towards me.  Great, just what I needed.  I braced for the unwanted interaction.  

As the man stood in front of me, his eyes widened.  He offered a broad smile before uttering these words:  don’t give up, just keep giving.  Startled, my eyes instantly welled with tears. My mood lifted.  The certain hangdog expression on my face dissipated.  I felt light as a feather.  And peering into his eyes, I responded softly:  thank you, thank you.  He continued to smile but said nothing else.  Then he turned around, and when the train pulled into the next station, he exited the car.  In the space of a moment, this kind stranger on a train became, and will forever remain, a powerful and important teacher.  I think of him often.  And I thank him.  He was just what I needed. 

The last place I ever imagined having a powerful spiritual experience was a crowded subway car.  But wisdom can be offered by anyone, anywhere, at any moment.  What a profound life lesson.  I recall what Mother Teresa said:  If you don’t see Jesus in the next person you meet, you’ll never find him.  Whether you have any religious faith or not, her observation affirmed that the entrances to holiness exist everywhere.

When we see nothing other than the dramas of our daily lives, we make ourselves small.  The call to service, to keep giving when we want to give up, orients us to a horizon beyond our troubles, disappointments, and broken heartedness.  When we heed that call, the world offers itself to our imagination, as the poet Mary Oliver wrote.  Our tribulations are situated in a much larger context, allowing us to appreciate how we truly need each other to move through and thrive in this world.  Don’t give up, just keep giving. 

What do you make of my teacher’s words?   How can you apply them to your life?

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Neal Aponte

Neal Aponte is a licensed clinical psychologist with over 30 years of experience providing psychotherapy for adults, adolescents and children. Read more here.