Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Nick & Valerie: Human Nature

A true story:

When I opened the door, he asked, "Do you remember me?" Well, yeah, I did, mostly because he looks like Santa Claus--same basic shape, same wide white beard. So let's call him Nick, though that's not his name.

One of my jobs brings me into contact with people who are homeless or otherwise in need. They come to the door seeking the vouchers I hand out for lodging or for food. Nick and his wife, let's call her Valerie, had visited me more than once. She was as slender as he was wide, twitchy, and unfocused. Valerie had a neurological disorder, and they would tell me the latest tale of him guarding and protecting her as she'd seizured on the sidewalk, or the desperate trip to the emergency room--because of course they had no health insurance, no regular doctor.

But this time Valerie wasn't with Nick. I invited him in and he sat down across from me and he said, "She passed." As he described the final seizures, the futile attempts at the hospital to save her, he cried and I cried too. He was looking for work again, now, but was unsure how he'd be able to drive a truck without her--in years past when he'd driven, she'd been in the cab with him, over thousands of miles.  The long-haul job he'd recently tried for had fallen through, and he was almost glad, because he wasn't sure how to face the road alone. Now he was living in his pickup truck, he said, but he sure could use a hot shower and warm bed, if I could give him a lodging voucher.

But I couldn't. The rules on the vouchers had changed with the downturn in the economy, and the new rule was that a person could only receive one. Nick and Valerie had already used several. "Well, that's alright," he told me when I apologized for this unexpected change. "It's been really nice to talk to someone about her." I invited him to come back and see me again, let me know how's he's doing, and he said he would.

As he reached for the door to leave, the sleeve on Nick's arm rode up and I saw on his wrist a tattoo that hadn't been visible in his past visits. Just beyond the sleeve cuff was a Nazi swastika.

Then he was gone, and I was left on my side of the door, thunderstruck at this Santa who embodied the two sides of human nature.  Because the confounding thing is that even Nazis love their wives. Human nature would be much easier to understand if its black and white did not blend to gray.



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20 comments:

  1. Shades of gray - and gray in light of whose perspective?

    Don't you just hate it when you know what to think and then the rules change?

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  2. I felt for "Nick" as his life and the loneliness he faces must be very difficult. And sad as well.

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  3. Wow. Great story. I see a sermon coming on....given by you....

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  4. And that is why liberals shy away from bombast. We have a much greater tolerance for uncertainty. It's a harder road to maintain, but we have no choice.

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  5. Great glimpse into a man's life. Humans are multidimensional creatures. How does someone's past affect his present state of mind? How long does it take to leave a bad episode behind? Hard to really know what's going on ... I usually get along better with dogs.

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  6. Wonderful story. So sad. Each one of us is made up of many stories, some good, some bad, and just simple day-to-day experiences on life.

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  7. The complexity of human nature never fails to confound me. I think of the Biblical injunction to "judge not, lest ye be judged" and yet we judge everything all the time. It's like consulting our personal compass; good, bad, neutral, and (now) confused.

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  8. I love blog posts that make you think.

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  9. A powerful piece of writing Patrica! Although it is not likely, the original use of swastika was a symbol of sun, power, and good luck. The Nazi's forever corrupted this design and we all think of hatred when we see it these days.

    I liked the beginning Santa Claus image in contrast to the last few sentences.

    We are all humans after all.

    Thanks.

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  10. Thanks for visiting, Wild Bill! Yes, Kris's tattoo might have reflected an earlier meaning, though as you point out, that's not likely. And it could also be that he'd grown out of youthful stupidity that'd prompted him to have it in the first place. If he returns, I might just have to ask him (if I'm prepared to hear the answer...).
    Nice to hear from a New England Ecologist, the blogger behind www.wildramblings.com.

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  11. Yes, it's true even Nazis love their wives, but that does not make them any less hateful and horrific as humans. Like the whalers and the ones who corral the dolphins into the bloodied coves, they go home to their wives and tell their psychopath tales of heroism and slaughter. I don't know how to reconcile those two competing visions. But I tend to err on the side of contempt for those whose philosophies permit them to destroy others.

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  12. Wow. I guess what I took from that is the old saying, "You never know." I recently worked with a high school student that no one can stand. He's rude, disrespectful, sullen, does no work all day, etc. Not exactly cuddly. But when I sat and really talked with him, and showed him some empathy, he really opened up. It turns out that this young man has had challenges I can't imagine facing. He has suffered through parental addictions, rejections, and abuse. He intends to seek out his father, who abandoned him (but not two female siblings) when he was two months old, once he hits a certain age (soon). I saw so much depth, pain, and sadness. I expected, to be honest, to just meet a pain-in-the-butt who doesn't like homework. Again, "you never know." Thanks for that story, Pat!

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  13. Sue addressed the things I was going to. So much of the rage Skinheads and others express is because they've been brutalized by one or more of their caregiver's (parent, mom's boyfriend, etc.). It's too scary to feel that rage at the person they live with, so the project it out onto another group. Usually people behave badly because the part of their brain that acts kindly or gently, or empathic-ally has not been developed by observation or experience.

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  14. Powerful story indeed---are you a minister? I'm preferring to go with Wild Bill's option---or another possibility: my undying belief that people can change.

    Please post again after your next conversation with Nick.
    And please let his answer be "sun and luck."

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  15. Nope, not a minister. I do work in a Unitarian Universalist church, tho. If he wanders my way again, I'll let you know. (And by the way, don't you think that "sun and luck" would be a good answer for a number of different questions?!)

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  16. Powerful story indeed---are you a minister? I'm preferring to go with Wild Bill's option---or another possibility: my undying belief that people can change.

    Please post again after your next conversation with Nick.
    And please let his answer be "sun and luck."

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  17. Sue addressed the things I was going to. So much of the rage Skinheads and others express is because they've been brutalized by one or more of their caregiver's (parent, mom's boyfriend, etc.). It's too scary to feel that rage at the person they live with, so the project it out onto another group. Usually people behave badly because the part of their brain that acts kindly or gently, or empathic-ally has not been developed by observation or experience.

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  18. Great glimpse into a man's life. Humans are multidimensional creatures. How does someone's past affect his present state of mind? How long does it take to leave a bad episode behind? Hard to really know what's going on ... I usually get along better with dogs.

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  19. Wow. Great story. I see a sermon coming on....given by you....

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