The door opened to a sidewalk of slush and grey skies. I exited the bus, negotiated my way around some hurried pedestrians, then crossed the road.
I saw him, sitting on his corner. Bank Street and Albert, downtown Ottawa.
Ruddy, pock-marked face, sandy-brown beard. And a smile that stretched from ear to ear. Many people walked by, ignored him. I've seen him before on this corner. Sometimes I nodded. Sometimes said hello.
A burly homeless man.
He wished passersby a cheerful "good day." His voice was clear, but gentle. Friendly, not intrusive. Never even asked for money.
I wondered how he mustered the courage. To look genuinely happy—I couldn't fathom how. Here was a man reduced to begging. Well, he wasn't even begging. Just sitting on a street corner. And he seemed to be at peace. I couldn't stop thinking about it as I waited for the light to change.
If this man can spread joy in his situation, then surely, I could be a bit more compassionate toward my fellow citizens.
This man gave me the gift of perspective.
I crossed the street, stopped underneath the shelter of an office building's overhang. A cold mist hung in the air. Cigarette butts littered the ground. I paused, took a deep breath. I felt compelled to speak with him so I doubled back. We locked eyes as I approached.
"Excuse me," I said, placing my hand on his shoulder, "I just want to say your joy is infectious."
He smiled his ear-to-ear smile and thanked me.
"My name's Jeff. Nice to meet you," I said.
He told me his name, I think it was Karl, I can't remember. All of a sudden, my problems seemed pretty inconsequential.
I take so much for granted.
A roof over my head. A loving family. Not wondering where my next meal will come from. And then I feel so sad that some people don't have that. What would Karl do for supper that night? Where did he sleep in the cold? Does he have a place to stay, does he sleep in a shelter?
He seemed at peace, joyful. But was he really? Was he really happy, or is that just the face he presents to the world? Like the curated pics and posts we slap on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, waiting for validation to come in the form of likes, shares, emojis.
We live in such a connected world, but sometimes I feel it's never been easier to be lonely.
It's hard to know at that moment whether Karl was really happy or sad or lonely or mad. He's human. Maybe that's why we usually ignore homeless people, because looking them in the eye would mean we'd have to acknowledge their humanity.
The next time you pass a homeless person on the street, give them the honour of acknowledging their presence. A simple nod or smile will do.
Maybe it'll help you slow down and appreciate what you have. But maybe it won't.
Maybe it'll help you be a little kinder to the people in your life. But maybe it won't.
Then again, I guess that's all up to you. It's just a matter of perspective.