BARRETT: We can be better than we are

Tom Barrett

When I took the train home from work late every night two summers ago, I’d encounter some, well, interesting characters on the platform in downtown New Brunswick. Usually I thought it was best to avoid all forms of contact with the various individuals sprawled out across benches or mumbling angrily to themselves, but one night I was forced to break that personal shield I had surrounded myself with.

As I sat there eating my post-work slices of pizza and waiting for my train, I was approached by a man who was probably in his mid-forties. He was wearing clothes and boots that were long past their prime and dirtied from constant wear. He sat beside me and, without muttering a word, longingly stared at the second slice I had sitting on my lap. I offered it to him, and though his eyes lit up, he cowered and refused. I insisted and, upon second thought, he eagerly accepted my offer.

He did not speak English, so we spoke in the little Spanish that I knew. Our conversation was slow as most of it was spent trying to assemble the missing pieces of what the other had said, but his gleaming eyes told me he enjoyed it, nevertheless. He was from Puerto Rico and, though he came here with his family hoping to find work, he had not seen them or had a job for months. My train pulled in, abruptly ending our conversation. As I got up to board the train, he looked at me and, in English, he said, “Thank you, my friend. I love you. I love you.”

I spent the train ride home thinking about my lonely new friend and the short conversation that we had. Part of me worried about his dismal prospects, but I was struck more by how much of a positive impact a plain slice of pizza and a broken conversation had on this man’s mood. The transformation of his countenance from dejection to sincere appreciation was profound, especially for such a seemingly small gesture.

Then I realized that even people who seem to have lost everything still have hopes and dreams, friends and family and the ability to love and be loved. Moreover, I realized that through my simple actions I was somehow able to connect with him. If only briefly, I was able to help him feel better.

This short encounter made me realize that every living human being has it in them to be better than he or she currently is. An overeager fourth grade student answering every question in class and a forlorn homeless man worrying about his next meal both have unlimited potential in them waiting to be released.

Many of us, however, do not see this potential. Whether we are insecure about being overweight, or we have been denied the job we wanted, or we have been told for so long that we are not good enough for something we ourselves start believing it too – all of these things and then some can stand as an opaque wall blocking us from seeing what we are capable of being. Many feel the ability to fly within, yet we feel ourselves tied down by insecurity and doubt, among other external factors.

More importantly, however, this interaction made me realize that every time we interact with another person – every conversation with a friend and every brief encounter with a stranger alike – we hold within ourselves a great power: we can lift this individual up and assist him or her in his or her journey to being the person he or she wants to be. Every smile we offer a stranger, every time we genuinely listen to a friend and every time we acknowledge another as a fellow human being, we give others a chance to recognize the good dwelling inside them.

Conversely, when we fail to see this awesome power, we run the risk of keeping others tied down by insecurities. Walking by a homeless individual and treating him or her like another part of the sidewalk will only reinforce the impression that he or she is just a cold, lifeless chunk of concrete. Making jokes about a socially awkward guy will most likely only make him more socially awkward.

Many of us have countless barriers blinding us from seeing our inherent potential and, if we are not mindful of our actions, we can reinforce these walls in others.

It is our responsibility to recognize this uplifting and uniquely human power that we each possess. As I said before, every single one of us has the potential to be better than we are and, just as importantly, we each have the ability to liberate each other from whatever chains are holding him or her back from seeing this undeniable goodness. We must not forget this awesome power that we have at all moments and use it wisely.

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Tom Barrett is a senior philosophy major from Colonia, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected]