We may not see each other as God sees us, which can be very humbling
By George Valadie
Our youngest daughter recently moved back to Chattanooga and found an apartment downtown. We love to visit her and pretend we are cool. We take her to all the trendy places for dinner.
She lives on the top floor of a renovated building and has a beautiful view of the skyline. It’s breathtaking. She loves it, and we love it for her. But sometimes we still worry about her safety.
Her mother reminds her every time she leaves to keep her keys out in her hand while she’s walking in. She also must vow to park as close as possible to her building … to even make her own spot if there isn’t one available. I felt more at ease, though, when I realized that an access card is required for entry.
It makes me recall something that happened when we still lived in Memphis and visited our middle daughter for the weekend when she also was living in downtown Chattanooga.
One early Saturday, it was my chore to run down to the main street and buy a morning newspaper and our daily Diet Cokes. The convenience store was across the street, no more than 30 steps from her front door.
Before I set out, I momentarily thought about dressing a little differently — you know that vain old adult worry about what people might think — but I decided I looked just fine.
Bad — but just fine.
As I crossed the street, I noticed the old guy who seemed to be hanging out on the property of the store where I was headed.
He looked bad, too. Not all that different from me really.
In my 30 steps, I ran through at least that many judgments of the man.
“He’s probably safe, likely a bum. His clothes were a bit more wrinkled than mine, but probably all that he owned. It seemed early to be out for a walk, so I guessed he’d spent the night; homeless for sure, with a drinking problem to boot.”
I glanced his way, he glanced mine. So I just knew he was going to ask for some of my money. Or worse.
There weren’t a lot of people around. Did he want my wallet? My credit cards? Did he have a gun?
I walked past him, trying not to look while noticing everything I could.
He didn’t say a word, but he did decide to follow.
So I picked up my pace and hurried into the store. As did he.
He never said a word. I bought my stuff, he bought his. And I felt like an arrogant fool.
Walking back to her apartment, I laughed at myself for my unfounded fears. And felt guilty for my better-than-thou criticisms.
My arms were loaded down with the paper, a box of drinks and a bag of bagels. Searching for the access card while trying not to drop it all was proving to be every bit the hassle she said it was.
To my good fortune, a young woman resident hit the door just before me. She’d been out jogging carrying nothing but her card.
She didn’t really hold the door for me, but I did slide in before it closed behind her. There we stood together in a very intimate, six-by-six lobby waiting on the elevator.
And then — in one very revealing look — I had become the old man across the street.
She didn’t say a thing. She didn’t have to. But she was every bit as nervous as I had been only moments before.
I knew she was safe. But she didn’t. She didn’t know me. She’d never seen me. And because of my armload, I was unsuccessfully struggling to pull out my own access card, which would have indicated that I belonged.
She was scared. And I can’t blame her. I was wrinkled, unshaven, with hair amiss. I looked bad; and maybe not nearly as fine as I had thought.
In the seconds while we waited for the elevator, I’m pretty sure she had formed all sorts of judgments about me — none of them good, and none of them how I see myself.
In an effort to relieve the tension, I tried a faint smile. I got nothing. If anything, I think she took it as the sickening leer of a dirty old man.
Finally, I offered a few words, “I sure love y’all’s building. I’m here visiting my daughter and this is a great place,” as I finally managed to pull out the only thing she wanted to see — an access card of my own.
We both exhaled. Our mornings had been so similar. We had been cautious and careful, guarded and smart — and dead wrong.
Dear God — Our world keeps us torn between being smarter and kinder. As if we must be one or the other. Please shine your light on our darkness. Amen.
George Valadie is president of Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.