Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Grace to the Gracious

I have a general policy about kindness and friendliness to strangers on the street that goes a good bit beyond most urban American standards. I may be wrong about this, I freely admit, but at some point I decided it would be better to err on the side of too extreme an adherence to Christ’s warning “Whatever you did to the least of these my brothers you did to me” than on the side of over-caution. Somehow, I think the damage that over-caution could do to my soul is worse than the danger to my body everyone imagines is waiting behind the stranger on the street.

As you can imagine for a young woman, this has gotten me into quite a few sticky situations over the years. I admit that the caution that my friends in the conservative-right and the liberal-intelligentsia alike have tried to instill in me over the years would have saved me from many an awkward situation. But what I have also found is that most awkward situations are, in their strange, awkward ways, windows for grace.

Take today for example.

As I walked down a small, empty side-street around the corner from my regular coffee shop at 7am, I was hailed by a man in his 20s or 30s.

He says (politely enough): Excuse me, can I ask you a question?

I say (pleasantly, pausing my walk): Sure.

He says: I’m not from around here; is there a tattoo parlor on that street?

I think: You’re looking for a tattoo parlor at 7:00 in the morning?
I say: I feel like there’s one down that way, but I couldn’t tell you for sure.

He says: You’re not a tattoo person, I guess?

I think: Already changing the subject?
I say (maintaining my pleasantness): Nope, not so much.

He says: It’s for my girlfriend. She wants to get her belly-button pierced. [Face becoming contorted as if pondering a vexing issue] Do you know anyone with a belly-button ring?

I think: I should probably be wrapping this conversation up soon...
I say: Yeah, lots of people.

He says: How does that work? She’s an inny... can they pierce an inny?

I think: I don’t think he’s thinking a lot about his girlfriend right now...
I say: Yeah, they just pierce the skin on top, and the ring hangs down over the belly-button. It works. [Beginning to step away as if the conversation is ending.]

He says (quickly): Wait, it doesn’t make sense to me. Are you an inny? Can you just show me on your belly-button?

I think: Abandon ship! Abandon ship!
I say: Nah, it’s pretty simple... they just stick a needle right above it. [Making feeble hand motions to illustrate the phenomenon]

Right then, as if on cue from out of nowhere, my thesis director (a well-established Renaissance scholar and Catholic intellectual who always wears a suit with a hankie in the pocket and a hat over his gray beard like a proper gentleman) walks up to the post office that is right behind us.

My thesis director says (jovially): I just can’t get away from you!

I say (relieved): Nope, apparently not!
I think: [Grasping for an academic question that will involve walking away from the stranger] How thankful I am that I was not showing this fellow my belly-button right now!

To all of you out there who don’t find the balance between wisdom and grace toward the stranger on the street as easy as it seems to be to others, I empathize with the tension. But I am learning that there is an abundance of grace out there waiting to be poured back out on the gracious.

I mean, what if I had been showing that guy my belly-button right as my thesis director walked up? That’s one catastrophe I could do without two days before my defense!


learning to walk said...

Pity you didn't have any friends with one to show him.

Not that said friends would have.

Actually, it's not a pity at all.

NC Sue said...

I can think of some other, worse tragedies than that... seems you came across a truly odd duck. Glad you found a graceful way out.

Like you, I prefer to believe the best about the people I run across. I'm usually not disappointed. But I'm also a believer in a "spider sense" that gives me a creepy-crawly feeling at times.

Good luck with the thesis defense.