01/20/2014 07:53 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2014


"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
--Martin Luther King Jr.

Saturday evening I was at a gathering hosted by Ari Nessel, the founder of The Pollination Project, where Marianna Cacciatore gave a talk about "Grief, Generosity and Love." The evening began with each person sharing where they were at that moment in time with the life forces of grief, generosity and love. We discussed giving and receiving and how we can break down the many barriers to connecting and come together in our common humanity.

It was a soul-stirring experience with profound lessons that have changed me on a cellular level, lessons that I put into practice with the first human interaction the following morning. I am coming out of a period of intense work, and when I woke up, I was in a tired but inspired place, basking in the afterglow of having my soul infused with grief and love the night before. In my fuzzy pre-caffeine state, I settled into a café and faced a humbling challenge that, for a few minutes, had me forgetting everything I had just learned.

My work as a mental health advocate is very social and also quite demanding. To stay in a healthy place, I require a great deal of silence, time alone and downtime. As I was craving the sunniest spot to soak my vitamin D-deficient body in the Bay Area café, I noticed that a man who was disheveled and talking to himself had the best spot in the house. I had the following thoughts:

"I want that spot. Is he going to smoke those cigarettes that are all over his table? Does California let people smoke in restaurants? Is he going to continue to talk to himself or to me? Is he going to ask me for money? I want some peace. Please don't talk to me."

Immediately the man started to speak to me. He spoke in a muffled tone and was difficult to hear. I was half-listening and thinking, "I am such a hypocrite. I am not being present. I am so tired. Please give me sun and give me peace." Thankfully, this human interaction melted me in about a minute, when he said to me, "Look at all these things I found in the garbage. Do you want this nice bag?"

I said, "Oh, thank you, but no, it's OK." Then I remembered what we'd talked about the night before: the fact that everyone has a gift to give, whether it be a "thank you," a smile, a meeting of the eyes. There is the spark of divinity in all of us. So I turned back to him and said, "Actually, yes, thank you. I would be touched to receive your gift." In turn, I started digging through my bag to see what I had to give him. Gum? No. A tube of lip balm? Maybe. Ah, my favorite shea butter hand cream, perfect for his dry hands, with many red marks on them. I offered him my gift; he put it on immediately, inhaled the wonderful fragrance and said, "Thank you so much. This is exactly what I needed."

He proceeded to pack up his cigarettes and other belongings and walked out, leaving me with another gift of two movie DVDs. When he went outside, he grabbed his cart with his sleeping bag and other worldly possessions and took a moment to smile and wave at me through the window. The gift of feeling "one" in our humanity with this beautiful man left me with the priceless feeling of being connected and alive.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day today, I can't help but wonder if this type of sacred intimacy, this "oneness," is what he was dreaming about.

And the world will live as one...