Today, a homeless man I’ve never seen before and will probably never see again taught me a powerful lesson.

I was just coming out of a walk-in medical services facility (where they took x-rays of places that never before had been looked at quite so closely) and was walking toward the subway on 33rd Street. Home for me was about 30 minutes away, depending on how soon the train came. I was walking quickly, intent on getting to the subway before rush hour, so I almost walked right by him. But there he was, bent over a trash can going through rubbish and looking like someone straight out of a Dickens novel.

He was covered in many layers of clothing, some torn, some blackened. His face barely peeked out of the hood drawn over his head. He even had what looked like Michael Jackson gloves on his hands, covering all but the gnarled fingers. I felt for some bills in my pocket and pulled out a couple of singles, feeling at once it wasn’t enough, yet kind of mesmerized by the man’s determined intensity to find whatever it was only he would recognize as useful.

For a moment, I wondered if I should even approach. Hard sometimes not to have that instinctive fear when you see someone who looks so different and is so obviously alienated from mainstream society. But I’ve gotten to know various homeless people over the years and decided to walk around to where I could see his mostly covered face. I caught his eye and smiled as I moved a bit closer. “May I give you this?” I held the bills near the hand that was closest to me. He looked at me with dead eyes, and said “No!” as he waved me away and went back to what he was doing before I had so rudely interrupted him.

Tears welled in my eyes as I walked to the subway, knowing I was headed home to my warm and cozy apartment. At first, I felt bad that I hadn’t been able to give him anything. But then, remembering something I had just learned this past week, I realized I had given him something. I gave him the chance to say “no”.

I’m part of a bereavement support group for people who’ve lost their parents. My mom died just a few months ago and it‘s been really hard. Last week’s class was about how to help people who are suffering and also how to help people help us in our own grief. I brought up a situation currently in my own life. Someone I went to college with years ago is being treated for liver and colon cancer and is severely depressed. A few of us have tried to cheer her up by calling or visiting. Lately she’s been very angry at me (and everyone) for trying to be positive and help her think about reasons she might want to live. She yelled at me saying she is sick of people talking about being positive and told me she didn’t want to talk to me anymore.

I felt awful that I couldn’t find words that comfort. More than anything, I like to make people smile. But the support group leaders helped me see that, under the circumstances, one of the only things my friend still has control over is saying “no” to what people are telling her she should think. She has good reason to be in a dark place and is fighting for the right to stay there if she wants to. And by listening to her words, I at least gave her the chance to express a sense of control about something that really matters to her.  At this point, for many reasons, most of the decisions in her life have been taken out of her hands. Yet the human spirit wants to be free and exercise its right to choose. And by telling me off and pushing me away (for now), that’s what she finally got to do.

Hopefully the card I sent will open the door for me to call again. But at least I understand better what it is she truly needs. The need to make her smile is MY need. Her need is to exercise some control in her life.   And so she did.  And so did the homeless man. 

The right to say “no” is a powerful tool.  And so, when one is ready, is the right to say “yes”.