I believe in being present. Even from what little I’ve experienced, I’ve seen enough to know that in almost any case, just being there can make a larger impact than what could ever be observed from the outside, even if nothing more is offered than hand to hold or a shoulder to cry on.
Or, in the cases I’ve seen especially, a back to be carried on.
This past summer, I was blessed with the opportunity to spend two months in inner city Memphis, reaching out to the impoverished kids in the neighborhood. While I was often burdened with logistical work and responsibilities that seemed beyond my capability, I was also almost incessantly burdened literally by kids who would shamelessly demand, “Put me on yo’ neck,” and who would burst into tears if I didn’t give into their request. There wasn’t a single moment in the city when I wouldn’t have a line of children waiting to be carried on my back or shoulders. When I first arrived, I was bombarded with children I’d never seen before wanting me to hug them, or play with their hair, or wrestle with them, or honestly, just touch them.
It freaked me out. I couldn’t understand why any kid, let alone these kids who were growing up in such an unreliable environment, would be so ready to trust me, or so needy of my affection. But as I started to learn about some of the 214 kids’ home situations when I would walk them to their houses, I started to recognize the neglect and irritated attention they received. I would see their countenance change from joyful trust to tough independence the moment I would drop them off. In almost all cases, the attention they got from me and those working with me was the only affirmation they got.
Although it wasn’t an uncommon situation, I remember specifically the case of a four year old that I’ll call David. He was probably one of the worst behaved kids I’ve ever met, always kicking and hitting me, never considering the guidelines we set out for him, constantly crying and storming off when things didn’t go his way. One day he was particularly ill behaved, amplifying all of his rebellion into sudden outbursts for no apparent reason. Throughout the day, workers came up to me and informed me that David was refusing to pay any mind to anyone, and that he constantly was feeling the need to let out his frustration by hurting other kids. Once I was able to catch him, after chasing him down the sidewalk, and force him to look at me, I asked him what his deal was. He answered by looking away and producing tears. After a moment’s hesitation, he looked to the ground and said, “I miss my daddy.”
“Where’s your daddy at, David?”
“He’s out in the street somewhere,” he said with what I could only describe as defiance, as he mouthed the words he never should have had to come to terms with.
I didn’t know what else to do, and there were certainly no words I could say, so I just pulled him into me and hugged him, then picked him up and carried him on my hip as he wiped his tears into my hair. All of his aggression melted and he wrapped his arms around my neck, letting down his defenses for me, even if just for a moment. Just for a moment, I was able to see what nobody else could see, know what nobody else could know, and because of that, I was able to comfort him like nobody else could, just by holding him. By simply being there, I was able to show him acceptance and love, maybe the most he’d seen weeks or months. And even if it was a temporary sensation, he was able to trust that he was okay as long as I didn’t let him go.
And after that, David behaved. It was excruciatingly difficult, however, to get him off my neck long enough for him to have any fun, but the true reason for me going to Memphis was to love the kids, not run a program for them, anyway. My purpose, I realized, was to be there, if nothing else. The way David smiled after that day left an impact on me much larger than the impact I left on him. I now carry with me the experience of having comforted someone with nothing more than my presence, nothing more than being here. And since then, when my friends have come to me with their burdens, I have made sure to take a moment just to hug them, to pull their burden onto my shoulders and to share it with them. Numerous times, my friends and family have done the same for me, and I can honestly say I have yet to find anything more comforting than the acceptance felt in a moment such as that.