(Editorial Note: This week’s post is the work of Robert B. Charles, author and former assistant secretary of state for President George W. Bush. Its content is both thought-provoking and affecting in a way that causes us to consider how we view the world around us.)
Human engagement is risky. People are not math equations, predictable answers. They are quixotic, often unpredictable. That is what makes humanity interesting – and risky. Today, we take fewer risks on humanity. Point: we should take more.
Three stories come to mind. Like most of professional America, I am busy seven days a week – or darn close. I hardly have time for chores, calls, documents, and family. That’s life – busy.
Long day over, it was dusk in DC. He was sitting in a door frame, cup in one hand, making no demands – not verbally. I almost missed him, but then something about him caught me. I stopped. He looked up.
There was dignity about him, an untold story. Sometimes you know there is more. “What’s your name?” “Robert,” he said. “That’s mine too,” I said. “What’s your story?” I ventured. He looked at me hard, as if to say: “Are you serious? You’re standing in a suit, polished shoes, and you want my story?” I understood that look. He saw condescension, and why not?
I took off my jacket, and sat down – “Yes, I’d like …” Before I could finish, I saw the emblem. On his hat was an eagle, head to the sky, under a yellow arc that read “101st Airborne.” Yes, he had a story.
The places he named in the Central Highlands were familiar, but he had been there. He knew other names – the A Shau Valley and Khe Sanh, plus battles I had never heard of. As he talked, his eyes grew sharp, voice clear, and frame straightened. How long we talked, I am not sure – but he educated me.
Then he talked of his plans. He had them. When we parted, he was the one who had given me sustenance, not the other way about. Our handshake was real. He wanted no more – that was it. I never saw him again, but he enriched me – enormously.
The second encounter was in a mall. Older and persistent, the beggar wanted money. Not threatening, he cornered me. I stopped. I asked his name, and story. Strangely, he stopped asking for money – and focused on me, as if determined to prove he could give an honest answer.
In sum, he was diagnosed schizophrenic but managed his disease. He took three pills each morning and evening; they worked. He could only get part time work, did not drink or take illegal drugs, just needed to eat.
He was cogent and candid. He seemed surprised to have been asked, and to hear his own voice answering. I thanked him. We then shared lunch and had many real conversations after that. People surprise you; without asking I would not have understood the struggle.
The third encounter was unfair, and I beat myself up about it. A young man, seemingly healthy, if unshaven and slovenly, caught me outside a coffee shop. Bloodshot eyes, long, dirty and unkempt hair, his attitude was entitlement.
I was not patient. I asked his name and story. He gave a wandering, unfocused, dissembling tale, ending with another hard-edged ask for money. I should not have done it, but I asked if he was on drugs. He admitted to using marijuana, adding it helped him. I challenged that conclusion.
He threw back that getting a job was hard, that no one cared, and his future dead. I refused to let him go there. I suggested ways forward – places he could apply for part time work, value of steering clear of marijuana, way to get a driver’s license, importance of taking care of himself. I said that he and I both knew he could do better.
The conversation did not end well – he got quite angry. He did not get physical – but came to the line. He was upset anyone would question. To be honest, I was upset with myself – not for asking, but for missing the balance between mercy and justice. I misjudged his situation, since I did not know it. My assumptions about self-help got ahead of understanding. I walked away thinking he was a lost cause.
That conversation dogged me. I went back to the coffee shop, trying to find him – to apologize. The opportunity never came. He was no longer there. I kicked myself. Who would return to a place where such a conversation had occurred? He did not want to encounter me again.
Six months later, something astonishing happened. I was at the coffee shop, in line. A voice behind me spoke. “I did it,” said the voice. I spun around, did not recognize the person. Clean-shaven, with short hair, neatly dressed, entirely together, a clear-eyed young man looked back at me. As directly as I had once spoken, he spoke now to me. “I did it, have a job, my license, and no longer do drugs.” I was in shock. This was my friend – to whom I had hoped to apologize.
When he tried to thank me for unfair directness, I corrected the record: Words are easy, actions are hard. He did what he resolved to do; to him belonged all credit. More, he had given me new hope. I was so proud of that young man, you cannot imagine. I hugged him, offered to buy his coffee, but he refused. “The coffee is on me.”
Human engagement is risky. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes wrong. People are not math equations. They are unique souls, each one – we all are. That is what makes humanity interesting – and requires we keep reaching out. The world screams at us to ignore, disengage, and separate. In a word, don’t. Keep engaging.
Robert Charles is a former assistant secretary of state for President George W. Bush, former naval intelligence officer and litigator. He served in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses, as congressional counsel for five years, and wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003) and “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), the latter on WWII vets in a Maine town.