Seeing What’s Inside

Seeing What’s Inside

I’ve got a friend, J, who is studying to become a doctor in the Washington D.C. area. Since she works almost all the time and we haven’t talked much recently, we started trading snippets of everyday stories for fun. So yesterday, J is working at a senior living facility, where she is volunteering while school is out, and she had a personal epiphany that moved me to tears while I was sitting here at Starbucks. She’s graciously allowed me to share her words here:

So, I have a story to tell you. Yesterday I went to volunteer in this senior living facility. I do a free blood pressure check-up for the residents there once a week there. Because the facility is an apartment for the seniors with the amenities geared towards senior living rather than a nursing home, the residents are pretty in good shape. However, one of the patients obviously did not look normal but rather disabled. He had a disproportionately large head compared to his torso, even more so when compared to his legs. His torso was so hunched over forward, he reminded me of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. On top of that, he couldn’t walk well even with the walker. His lips were open constantly and he drooled. His hands were permanently deformed due to the neurological damage which caused contractures. Hope you get the picture. I glimpsed him walking (rather, dragging himself) into the room and felt a little bit of repulsion in my gut because he just didn’t look like a human to be honest. He walked in and sat down on a chair next to me while I was checking other residents’ BP which took a good 10 minutes. When it was his turn to take BP, he mumbled something and showed me his note book. He couldn’t even speak right so I had a hard time understanding him. He kept saying the same thing repeatedly, and finally I figured it out. It was that he drew a profile of me in his note book while he was waiting and he wanted to give it to me when he was finished. It was so touching that I almost had teary eyes. In the drawing, there were crude outlines of me which occupied half of the page. The lines were so zig-zag that it was hard to tell what it was at first glance. Yet, when I looked more closely, there was the eye, the nose, the lips and even the glasses I was wearing. The face was colored with red and yellow crayon which were the only color in the drawing. It might be just my own imagination but I could tell this person in the drawing surely is an Asian. When I looked at the drawing I could feel my heart wringing in my chest and ache. Here was this person, who didn’t even look like a human to me, who had the talent and the kind heart to draw me and give it to me! It turned out that he used to be a painter and he still enjoys it. I asked him whether he could show me some more drawings in the notebook. When he flipped through his notebook, there were pages after pages full of peoples faces all with the familiar zig-zag lines, yet with well-captured features. A chubby-faced boy with lots of freckles, a middle aged African-American lady, the security guard of the apartment, and so on. And he told me who these people were in his notebook. Some he saw in the emergency room a couple weeks ago, some were fellow residents, some were visitors, etc… He made me realize how shallow, calculating, judgmental I was. I failed to see past the person’s outside. I forgot that there is a soul in every human being no matter what kind of physical state he is in. It was amazing how one little drawing could change me so much and so deeply. It was amazing.

I reflected on this story for many long minutes, sniffling quietly, and was newly amazed at how every small interaction with another person can lead to…well, I don’t know what to call it. A connection? A change? Maybe it’s a reminder that so long we have the capacity to recognize a genuine gesture from someone’s heart, or to have the ability to express in that same way, we create the opportunity for something amazing? I have myself been going through an identity crisis of late, and have been hyper-aware of my barriers and preconceptions. I’ve been more self-conscious than usual—or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I’ve reverted to an old self-consciousness—as I’ve tried to work out what it is that’s been bothering me and define a course of action to correct it. J’s story reminds me that this is all in my head, and that if I can be open to what is out there, I’ll find amazing people and experiences just like this, hidden behind doors I wouldn’t ordinarily open. It could be that simple.

But there I go, introspecting again about myself. Thank you, J, for sharing that special moment with those of us who needed to hear it and didn’t even know it.


  1. Jeni 14 years ago

    I had a similar experience on a plane a few years ago.  I sat down beside my seatmate, a man in his 60s with a long scraggly beard and hempish clothing, sitting placidly in bare feet.  “Good god,” I thought.  “A whole 747 and I get stuck sitting next to the smelly weirdo.”

    The truth?  He smelled like fresh coconuts and orange blossoms.  His name was Michael.  He’s from my city originally but has lived in India since the mid-1970s.  We talked for eight straight hours (and I am marginally social at the best of times, and downright misanthropic on trans-Atlantic flights).

    Some of the things he said rocked me to my foundations—about how sacred spaces aren’t sacred because you possess a certain level of belief, but because they are imbued with the faith of the millions of others who have prayed there, about how frustration and failure are pointless in the face of all the things there are to fail at and be frustrated with (I was coming back from Spain, and recounted a really bad experience I’d had with my fairly awkward Spanish, and he looked at me and said, “Okay, so eventually you’ll perfect your Spanish, but you still won’t be able to speak Hungarian.”), and about a million other things. 

    He knew my age without my telling him, and he said to me—almost word for word, it was eerie—the same things my mom has said to me about the perils of “living in one’s head” too much.

    It was an absolute blessing to meet and to know him, if only for a few hours.  I think about him almost every day.

  2. Kenneth Younger 14 years ago

    Great post David. Always helps to read this type of thing now and again.