Improving our understanding of alcohol and drug addiction
The sky was crystal clear, but it was 8 degrees, and a biting wind made it feel even colder when I tentatively ventured outdoors for a jog. “Winter in Minnesota” isn’t a satisfying excuse when the treadmill in the basement has logged its last mile and doesn’t work anymore. I still needed my adrenaline fix.
Near the Salvation Army shelter on West Seventh Street in St. Paul, I passed a man shuffling his arms and legs in a slow-motion mimicry of my fast-paced jaunt. His outfit was the antithesis of mine. I wore tight sweats, an expensive Windbreaker, Nike gloves and a matching headband to protect my ears. He wore a woolen red hat, a dirty parka, a logger’s thick canvas work gloves and muddy boots. From his matted beard hung ribbons of frozen snot — or something like that.
“It’s too cold to be out here,” I shouted. The weather is always a good way to connect with strangers. Besides, my grandfather Papa Henry taught me that respect starts with acknowledging others we encounter during our day. No wonder it sometimes took him 20 minutes to walk two blocks. He always was stopping to talk to people.
I had no intention of halting my exercise routine, but the man’s response interrupted my singular focus on finishing my run so I could get home to eat my breakfast and warm up. “Out here today is called good living,” he said, smiling at me through a cloud of icy breath. “Good living comes with the attitude of gratitude.”
Recovering addicts and alcoholics often cite this “attitude of gratitude” as an important perspective for staying the course despite life’s challenges. But I can’t recall ever hearing it cited by a man outside on a bitterly cold day who probably is struggling with all the problems that come from being homeless — or at least dependent on The Salvation Army for the basics. And it forced me to consider how fortunate I am in my life, even though lately I have been focused more on what’s wrong with my circumstances than on what’s right.
What a gift. What a surprise. Wisdom from a stranger who doesn’t have a home of his own or a decent place to work, if he has work at all, whose meals require him to stand in a long line and eat what’s served rather than what his favorite is, who most likely got his clothes from a shelf of hand-me-downs others didn’t want. Does his family know where he his? Or worse, do they even care to know?
My big regret is that I didn’t stop to find out more about him. I waved and ran on to catch up with the rest of my busy life. Still smiling, he waved, too, and kept jogging slowly in the same spot. I don’t know whether he got anything out of the encounter. But I did, and I’ve been keeping pace with his attitude ever since.
by William C. Moyers