There I was. Nine years old and I’m handed a box of 25 candy bars to sell around the neighborhood as a fund-raiser for my classroom. Hmm.. not too great a task to accomplish you’d think. After all, who could say, “No.”, to a pitiful looking kid with glasses beating the pavement after school for a fundraising event? Well, as I found out day after long, torturous day… pretty much everybody I met. Now, some kids had a tough time selling that one box. What I encountered was traumatic failure on a grand scale. After three of the longest days in my whole life I literally got turned down at ALL but one house trying to sell those candy bars. I still had 24 left to sell while other kids were working on their second and third box already. I felt like the fleshly incarnation of Charlie Brown.
I’d knock on the door, the door would open. As it was I was too nervous to speak without fumbling some part of my sales-pitch. But that didn’t matter too much since most people took one look at me, one look at the box under my arm and cut me off to say, “No, thanks. Bye.” And to make it all complete… there was the final sound of the door closing like a coffin lid on yet another sale down the tubes. It wasn’t the candy and it wasn’t that part of town.. I figured it just had to be me, I was doomed. Only nine years old and I was a failure… good grief!
So yesterday afternoon (many years later) I got out of my car to get some cash out of the ATM on my way to the movies. I’m still in the middle of my transaction when this 10 year old kid comes up behind me saying, “Excuse me, sir.” (I’m 33 and it still feels weird for kids to call me ‘sir’.) I finish up, get my cash and turn around to see this brown haired kid in an oversized shirt with.. a box of candies under his arm. He begins his pitch, “I’m selling candy to win prizes and…”, I haven’t even heard his pitch or how much his candy costs but I’ve already made my decision and nothing is going to change my mind. He’s got a good pitch going so I let him complete it.
“…so would you like to help me by buying from the assortment of candies I have available?”, he asks.
“Sure.. what kind you got?”, is my instant reply.
Years have passed since the last door was shut in my face.. but the pain comes back every time I look in the eyes of some kid selling candy or getting pledges for a walk-a-thon. There have been times I was downright broke and still bought candy figuring it would count as dinner. Other times I was either so rushed or broke I apologized heartbroken profusely that I just couldn’t do it at that time. One pitiful episode left me and a very insistent kid trying to close the conversation at my door for over fifteen minutes. Even as I closed the door it was as though a cold stone sat in my chest that I had to turn him down. But 90% of the time I’ll buy whatever it is.
Is it because I need more candy? Hardly, I’ve usually got sweets of some kind in the kitchen and I can get it a whole lot cheaper at the grocery store. No, the reason I find myself buying a fifty-cent candy bar for five dollars is because I have walked in that kid’s shoes and to the extreme I have known that particular style of suffering.
Suffering offers the opportunity to gain three important values in life. Humility, Compassion and Kindness. I say ‘opportunity’ because suffering does not guarantee these things, it provides the chance to learn such things if we keep a good heart through our suffering. If we don’t then our reaction to times of suffering will entice us to embrace Pride, Indifference and Bitterness. We learn humility in suffering by realizing we’ve finally come up against something we can’t overcome. It has overcome us and continues to beat us down with a fervency, melting our hearts like wax. But not all suffering lasts forever, it eventually subsides or passes away completely. In the aftermath we can then learn compassion for those who are still in the same situation we’ve endured. But silent compassion is only an emotion without kindness to move us to put that compassion into actions that reach out and help others.
Many of you may already be familiar with the plight of Adam Walsh. As a child he was kidnapped and brought the issue of missing children to the forefront of American issues as his father searched publicly and desperately to find this child. Unfortunately his search ended with a terrible tragedy which had befallen young Adam at the hands of his abductor. To say that his father suffered is a great understatement. Yet, when the dust had cleared and the tears began to dry, his father devoted his life to organizing a national network to aid other families in locating and recovering their missing children in hopes to save other parents from the suffering he himself knew so well. Suffering had worked compassion and active kindness into this man’s heart at a very great cost. But the danger in suffering is that, had he not guarded his heart along the way he may very well have become such a bitter and angry man that he would not have been as much use to himself or society as he turned out to be.
It has been said before that “the willingness to suffer grants courage to even the meekest of hearts.” Nobody welcomes the experience of suffering or has to look far to find it. It finds us eventually. We all have different experiences behind us and occasionally we encounter someone who is travailing and flailing in the hurt of what we’ve come through. To our own shame sometimes we are tempted to keep it all behind us by not ‘getting involved’. We say silently, ‘let them work out their own problems’ as we lower our eyes and turn away. Perhaps we endured some manner of suffering and as much as we needed someone to hellp at that time.. no one came. But this is all the more reason why we should have compassion that exercises itself with kindness and offer what help or consolation we can. We may not have the answers or finances to remove their suffering, but as with the suffering that comes with a missing child it is not answers or money that are needed… just someone to listen and ‘be there’ to share the burden is worth more than we realize.
A man I consider to be very wise asked me a question over fifteen years ago that I have never forgotten. He asked me the first time, “What do you see when you walk down the street?” Being the young bone-head that I was I answered, “Crowds, cars, traffic, buildings…”. He cut me off and began to ask me how important were the issues of kindness and compassion. Then he asked me a second time, “What do you see when you walk down the street?” Suddenly, in that light I realized the only thing there really was to see were.. faces. Faces of those who were joyful, and faces of those who were hurting.
Giving anything of ourselves by its very nature costs us something. Our time, energy, sometimes finances or convenience. But “the willingness to suffer brings courage…”. We get afraid to share, afraid to take the time, afraid to get involved, afraid even of being rejected by a homeless person when we take him a meal. But the willingness to suffer, after our own suffering has passed, will grant us the courage and character in the final end to face such fears that withholds aid from those who silently pain for it. I don’t believe I have suffered sufficiently to know the particular hurt of an abused woman, a struggling cocaine addict or the loneliness of an adult too ashamed to admit they are still illiterate… but life’s cup of suffering has been passed around, a little to each of you. To some ‘this’, and to some ‘that’ particular pain. If you have come through your particular suffering with a heart of humility and compassion then the only question remaining to be asked is… “What do you see, when you walk down the street?”
Henry Velez is a writer, traveler and vlogger currently living in the Philippines. He has written extensively on social issues, relationships and travel.