My Lesson From a Homeless Man

05/14/2015 06:26 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016

I met a homeless man one Sunday morning a few months ago. Our brief exchange has had a lasting effect upon me.

I had just left a hotel with the intent to catch a train home following a lecture I gave the previous night. I passed him in the street. He was carrying what seemed to be his worldly belongings in a cluster of carrier bags, two or three to each hand. He looked so very sad, and tired, and walked slowly.

I walked on but part of me couldn't forget him. When I reached the street corner, I looked into a café where people sat in the warmth, protected from the cold. I thought of going in to grab a cup of coffee. As I stood there, about to open the door, I glanced and watched the man shuffle slowly across the street.

I felt like I was looking in two windows. In one was the warmth of the coffee shop and the taste of freshly ground coffee. In the other was the homeless man, alone on this cold, damp, Sunday morning, with nowhere to go to keep warm.

I went back. I crossed over the street and found him sitting down in a shop doorway. I had thought he was around 60 years old. Up close, he looked about the same age as me, only aged by loneliness and cold. I placed $20 in his hand. What happened next has left an imprint on my soul.

Never before have I witnessed such gratitude in a person's eyes as he made a prayer sign of thanks with his hands. The crystal clear honesty of it almost knocked me over.

I felt shame: Should I have given him more? He seemed holy in that moment, completely vulnerable, special in fact. I, on the other hand, felt ashamed, and small.

He saw himself as beneath me, that I and others could somehow decide his fate, and choose to bestow upon him money or food as we see fit.

I walked away, fighting back tears with gulps of breath. I angrily thought, "No, you are not beneath me, dear sir. You are not beneath anyone! You have a right to happiness."

I said a prayer for him and imagined him knowing his worth and finding happiness. It made me feel a little better, even though I still wish I could meet him again and do more for him. His piercing blue eyes reminded me Jesus of Nazareth in the movie of that name.

When we show our vulnerability, others sometimes see our greatness! As I blended back into the crowd, not showing mine, hiding among the hundreds of faces going about their lives, many also pretending, I felt small, and weak. In that simple exchange, the homeless man was most definitely the better man.

You see, I have come to measure greatness in the courage to bare one's soul. He showed his. I hid mine behind my wallet and my nice clothes. I chose not to show any emotion as I offered that small sum. I chose not to say anything else. My soul so wanted to speak, to say something that might make him feel less lonely; it even urged me to hold his hand for a while, but I was embarrassed by how I was feeling in that instant. I simply smiled, touched his hand lightly, stood up and walked away.

I think we should listen to our souls, or hearts, if you prefer that word, more. Life becomes so much more full when we listen and have the courage to act. It's not easy. I didn't show the courage that Sunday morning. But perhaps I'll show more courage next time my soul shouts out like that. At least I'm now a little more familiar with what it feels like.