A young man stopped me and asked for twenty-seven cents as I made my way up steps to the bank of the Mississippi river in New Orleans. His breath reeked of beer, evoking an automatic response, “No, you’ll only spend it on beer.” It didn’t occur to me that he’d asked for an odd amount.
“I just want to put the money in my back pocket and leave it there…not spend it on beer,” the young man said.
“I don’t believe you,” I said and began to walk away.
He stepped in front of me. “Please…let me tell you my story.”
I heard the earnestness in his voice, but sunglasses prevented me from seeing it in his eyes. He was dark-haired, slight of build, and not much taller than me. People dodged around us as they made their way up and down the steps. Why didn’t he just ask another passing tourist?
“Please listen,” he said, moving his hands towards me as if reaching out for help. “I just got out of jail yesterday… I was in for three months. My friends bought me beer to celebrate…but I couldn’t even get drunk.”
The pain in his voice riveted me to the spot.
“My mother threw me out onto the streets when I was fourteen because I didn’t get on with her boyfriend, and that’s where I grew up. I was put in jail because I got into a fight defending a friend. But I was hoping to die, to end the misery. Now I’m back on the streets again, but…tomorrow I have this opportunity of going for a job interview as a carpenter…and I want to go… I want to change my life for the better, but I don’t really know how.”
As my mind put jumbled pictures to his story, I thought about the agonising despair of losing my own mother at thirteen when the new man in her life didn’t want children. When I was fourteen I wondered how I could turn all the pain into wisdom after reading in the Bible that ‘pain begets wisdom’. Looking back on our meeting, it was as if the young man’s pain brought some of that hard-won wisdom to the surface, enabling me to speak these words:
“Love yourself. I know you’ve grown up believing that your mother didn’t love you, but it is okay for you to love yourself now. If you can do that, you will learn how to change your life for the better.”
The young man removed his sunglasses. Through his tear-misted eyes I saw questions. He blinked to clear his eyes. “How do I learn to love myself?”
And I said something like this: “Begin by accepting yourself as you are now. Like everyone, I know there are things you probably don’t like about yourself. But I have learned that for every negative trait we have there is a corresponding positive one. For example, if you think you are weak, then there are hidden strengths within you waiting to be developed. In a way it’s like going on a treasure hunt to find things inside you never knew were there. So all the bad things you think about yourself are really clues as to what you can find.
“Some people think it’s vain to love yourself, but I’m not talking about loving what you look like on the outside; I’m talking about the beauty that’s inside you.”
The young man looked at me without saying a word for a few moments. And then suddenly there was so much to talk about. Finally he said, “Will you pray that I’ll wake up in time for my interview tomorrow morning?”
I told him I would, and offered to help him out with more money than he had asked for.
“I just want twenty-seven cents,” he said.
I hesitated for a moment, fumbled in my purse…and then placed twenty-seven cents into his hand. He thanked me and added, “I just want to put it in my back pocket for luck. I’m twenty-seven years old.”
Late that afternoon as I headed into Biloxi, the sight of a huge hazy orange sun sinking into the sea stirred the still raw emotions of our meeting. As I prayed for him, tears ran down my cheeks as I recalled my own ongoing struggle to learn to love myself.
And now, after years and years of rebuilding myself from the inside out, I know in my heart that if we could all learn to love ourselves, the bitterness and anger and violence in relationships, and the wars we wage against other countries, against other races, and against people of different religions, would cease to exist. By loving ourselves, we give ourselves the gift of inner peace.
So many people remind me of tightly closed rosebuds. Yet when we begin to love ourselves, the petals open one by one and, like the opened rose that emits a rich perfume, we can share with others the soothing balm of peace, compassion, empathy, and love.
This is a rewritten version of an article first published in the Ballarat News, January 19, 1994
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