This past week I met a guy named Kirk, a guy in his early forties. He had the hands of a working man, dirt ringed around his cuticles and embedded in the many nicks in his skin. Long hair pulled back, a tad greasy and disheveled. He was just a regular guy, puttering around his house, doing some spring cleaning.
I was there to pick up some rain barrels he was selling online. No one answered the knock at the front door so I called out as I walked toward the backyard. He responded with a welcoming, “Hey man,” like I was an old friend, when really we were meeting for the first time. After introducing himself, his first words were, “Do you garden?” I thought it a weird conversation starter but recalling my reason for being there, it made sense.
I told him that I was getting more into gardening in the past few years and have really started to enjoy it. We were fast friends. I surveyed his yard and asked questions about what he was growing. There were pots scattered across the yard full of small plants and freshly dug holes waiting for its new tenants. The narrow, deep lot had mature trees on either side but gardens covered the rest; no grass in sight.
We swapped stories of planting seeds, caring for seedlings, and of course, squirrels. The darn squirrels.
Conversation switched to our jobs and we realized our passions were similar. I told him about my work at Compassion with children in poverty. Kirk was a mental health counselor for children until last year when he decided to take some time away from work. I could see the pain in his eyes. He loves his work but it had taken a toll on his own mental health. It was like he wanted to tell me but couldn’t find the words. So I told him about the years I worked with street youth. He quickly turned toward me with a hint of a smile and said, “So you know. You’ve seen some things too.” I nodded.
We stood in silence for a few minutes as we waited for the remaining water to drain from the rain barrel.
“Oh those pesky squirrels. They really do get into everything,” Kirk broke the silence. I complained that they stole my tulip bulbs and he told me which plant bulbs would be safe because they don’t like them (daffodils and hyacinths, he claims). I asked about protecting vegetables and he told of the many things they took from him over the years.
We laughed, perhaps realizing how ridiculous a scene it was for two grown men to curse squirrels, or maybe it was because in this moment we had a simple and uplifting connection over something so simple. What could have been a quick sale of rain barrels turned into 40 minutes of talking and laughing with a stranger.
It was a wonderful reminder that I need to step outside of my world more often.
I get so consumed by my stuff that I lose sight of others. My world most days consists of my home, car, workplace, and to-do list. Each day has its routine and I move from one place to the next not often breaking the pattern. Every now and again, there’s a special occasion or something new, but once it’s done I quickly retreat to the safety and predictability of my world.
In my world I can forget about the bad stuff and pretend it doesn’t exist. I can stay emotionally detached to avoid the hurt and pain so prevalent in the outside world. I wish suffering wasn’t part of our life but it is. It’s inescapable. Perhaps that’s why I prefer to hide in my world where I can try to limit its effects or deal with it alone.
Kirk showed me that along with pain, our world is also full of fascinating people with stories to tell.
This unplanned break from my world reminded me that not only do we share in pain, but also in hope. Life is a shared experience, not something lived in isolation. It’s good to step outside of our self-contained worlds into the one we share. When we do, we witness resilience, gain a deeper appreciation of others, foster community, encourage those around us, and see that we aren’t alone.