Over the past few weeks I’ve learned to look at people in a new way. Call it creepy or call it empirical, it makes little difference. The fact is that I’ve found a glimmer of hope left in humanity. And so what if preserving that glimmer requires candid photos through curtains and glass?
The story begins at my desk—central station for all things gloomy. At least, that’s how it’s seemed the past little while. The bulk of the time I spend at my desk (a grand chunk of each twenty-four hour block) generally consists of my reading through documents linked to the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, Nazism, pogroms, etc. After all, it’s what I study. But that doesn’t make it any less difficult to process emotionally. And when I need a quick break from homework I’ll pull up a tab on an Internet browser to see if new developments have broken in Ukraine or in Gaza.
Frankly, sometimes I’m not sure what’s more dismal—the past or the present.
Life can seem a tad dreary at times, despite all our best intentions to keep stiff upper lips or to whistle or sing. And although I’m not a naturally sad person, every now and then things just don’t look terribly hopeful—and perhaps my addiction to current events isn’t helping this prognosis.
It was on one of those bleak days that I saw a cliché come to life and my whole mood changed. I was chatting with someone online—a friend or a sibling, I can’t quite remember—when a shuffling old woman entered my view through the window at my desk. I watched her hobble along the sidewalk across the street from my hostel, and she kept up her slow pace until she reached the large rosebush that clings to the building on that side of the road.
She reached up a rheumatic hand, gently took hold of a flower, and drew it close to her face.
Yes, friends. That woman literally stopped and smelled the roses.
I can’t explain why, but that experience struck me deeply. Despite my normal aversion to all things trite, I really admired that woman and suddenly felt the urge to go up to that rosebush myself and take a big whiff of the scent God infused into His creation. The view from my window gained meaning, and the world seemed a little less gray.
Imagine my surprise, then, when a day or two later a group of four passersby took the liberty to do the same thing—to stop for a moment, put their journey on hold, and sniff at the yellow rose petals.
That’s when I lost all sense of propriety. Glancing at the digital camera near my laptop on the desk, I made an impulsive decision and snapped shots of the group in order to document that people really do enact the adage we’ve all heard too often.
It became a new hobby. Every day I would look up from my readings from time to time to see how people reacted to the rosebush as they passed. If they stopped, I whipped out my camera for the photo, proving to the world (or at least to myself) that there really is beauty left on the earth, and that there really are people who relish it. I started to trust humanity just a bit more than I have in the past. In each passing pedestrian I imagined a closet philosopher enraptured by aesthetics, or a budding theologian whose mind and soul rejoiced in the glories of God.
But one day the motion that caught my eye through the window surprised me. An older man trudged along to the steps of a porch near the rosebush. He slouched onto the cement and leaned his guitar against the handrail, then pulled a can out of a crumpled grocery bag and poured the fermented drink into a bottle.
I watched him down round after round of the stuff. His face flushed, and still he pulled out new cans to fill his bottle when the old tins were empty. One time he got up, staggered to the nearby dumpster, and proceeded to relieve himself publicly. I quickly looked away, feeling embarrassed on behalf of this man who had numbed himself past the ability to feel. Clearly he yearned for the comfort—no matter how transient—that can come only after all senses are dead. Soon he stumbled back to his spot on the steps and eventually lost consciousness for a time.
The sight jerked me out of my idealizing and forced me to remember reality. Right next to the rosebush—that symbol I’d invented to stand for hope and goodness—there lay a drunken beggar who not only could not take time to smell the flowers, but probably had too much pressing on his soul to even see them or care. The immediacies of hunger, of hatred, of loss, unemployment, divorce, destitution, depression—who knows—crowded out the roses. And I understand why.
For some reason, I felt that I needed to capture this image. After a moment’s hesitation, I took up my digital camera, climbed under my desk in order to lift the curtain for a clearer view, and clandestinely snapped a portrait of the person whose pain I’d been watching.
I prayed for that man. There wasn’t much else I could do.
The next day he was back, and he sat on the porch even though it was raining and the steps had no awning to shield him from the drizzle. I ached for him—especially when he pulled out a can.
But this day turned out a bit differently than the previous one had. After about ten minutes or so, I saw a young woman approach the man. In one hand she grasped the handle of a mug covered in pink and red hearts; in the other she held a banana. She leaned over the man and insisted he take the fruit and coffee, then she stood for a while, chatting, laughing, smiling with the man who had set his beer can aside to make room for the gifts.
The two were so consumed with their conversation that I’m sure neither of them noticed the camera lens across the street, snatching the moment, preserving the scene of true love in action.
I’m not sure if the rosebush really is the symbol I’d made it out to be all those times that I watched people stop and observe it, or smell it, or touch it, or maybe just stand in its shade for a while. Sure, it’s beautiful, and I’m glad there are people who notice beauty in the world.
But there’s something more lovely than flowers.
Cliché and all, I think I’m in favor of the maxim to “stop and smell the roses,” just so long as we’re willing to notice the men who sit under the bushes. Just so long as we’re willing to grab our bananas and mugs and go stand in the rain for the sake of God’s sons and His daughters. That’s what makes this world beautiful–men and women and caring and love.
I’ll let you decide whether it’s wrong for a person to hide in her room taking pictures of strangers. But now, on those days when the present and past seem a little too heavy to handle, I’ve got proof that good people still walk on the earth—people who understand that “[p]ure religion and undefiled before God . . . is this[:] To visit [people] in their afflictions, and to keep [themselves] unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).