I will tell you the story of the exact moment I chose to believe in humanity.
I tell you my story not because it is special.
I tell you my story specifically because it is NOT special.
It was January 1999. 2am to be precise. I was 21 years old. I had just gotten out of the shower. My eyes were red from crying.
The story actually begins three hours earlier, though, in a homeless shelter where I had worked for a month.
If this were a movie, you would see a flashback now…
She walked into the shelter with matted brown hair and a glazed-over look, unable to make direct eye contact.
She was no more than a few years older than me.
45 minutes earlier she had lost her innocence in a frozen storm drain.
No. That’s not right. She hadn’t “lost” her innocence the way a child loses her favorite toy.
Her innocence had been ripped from her—violently—by a stranger.
I was a senior in college. Still a child, though I didn’t know it at the time. I had no idea what to do.
She wouldn’t let me call the police.
She threw most of her clothing away in an office garbage can (nothing in there but post-it notes, junk mail and some evidence of a crime).
She wouldn’t let me take her to the hospital.
She wanted new clothes and a shower. I provided both, knowing they were but “band-aids on bullet holes” (a lousy metaphor, but fitting in this case).
My shift ended at midnight, but I sat with her until 1:00 am.
Neither of us spoke much, but my presence seemed to offer a little sense of safety, the way the dirty fluorescent lights dimly lit the room… except in the corners.
At this point I must remind you that this story is real life, not a movie or a novel.
There was no grand moment of healing or dramatic exit. She said simply—without ceremony or gravity—“I can sleep now” and walked off towards the women’s sleeping room.
(The next morning, she left the shelter early and never returned.)
I drove home in silence along frozen streets.
Perhaps I drove past the storm drain where it happened.
Perhaps I even drove past the man who did it.
In the way that vicarious trauma makes no sense, I wanted nothing more than to shower and change clothes. Perhaps—like her—I thought I could wash away the events of the evening.
In the shower, I wept.
“Weep” is too gentle.
I sobbed, in great gasps, unable to breathe through the suffering and pain I had just witnessed.
I got out of the shower, toweled off and put on pajamas.
And that brings us to 2:00am, the moment I chose to hope; the moment I chose to believe in humanity.
I am hesitant to use the word “hope” because it can convey images of naïve fools and cotton candy.
There is nothing naïve, though about choosing to believe in humanity an hour after sitting with a woman who had just been brutally raped in a frozen storm drain.
No. Hope is not right, but it is the only word I possess.
I chose—against all immediate evidence—to believe in the fundamental goodness of humanity.
I chose—with no rational reason to do so—to reject a cynicism that highlights our specie’s darkest acts.
Hope—like faith and love—can only be born in moments when it makes no sense.
Hope—real hope—is always born in pain. In disappointment.
If your so-called “hope” springs from success, it is not actually hope. It is the ice that forms on a puddle on the last cold morning in spring.
No, I didn’t choose hope because it made sense.
I chose hope for the same reasons that our ancestors —a few thousand years ago—chose to light a fire on a moonless night when they heard the wolves encircling the camp.
Eventually, I crawled into bed exhausted.
That night changed every professional decision—and many personal—that I have made since.
What does this have to do with you?
Each of us has to choose.
Do we choose hope? Do we believe in humanity? Do we believe that our neighbors are good? Yes, they are flawed, but do we believe they are basically good?
Do we choose cynicism? Do we choose to reduce humanity down to its basest instincts? Do we believe that our neighbors are fundamentally evil?
If you choose cynicism, you will never be disappointed. You will never feel naïve.
If you choose to hope, people will sometimes let you down. You will sometimes feel foolish.
A dear friend is quick to remind me that “We must love the light more than we hate the darkness.”
Cynics grow bitter and tired.
They cannot see the selfless acts, or the everyday kindnesses, or the beautiful expressions of support, or the compassionate words between strangers, or the gentle dignity that is untouched by our wounds.
You have to choose.
The end of the story
A few years later, I was at a small family diner with my wife and young son.
The waitress was just a few years older than me.
She made eye contact effortlessly.
She didn’t recognize me.
My wife didn’t know the gravity of the encounter.
My son ordered pancakes shaped like Mickey Mouse.
How could I tell the server that I had seen her at the darkest moment of her life?
How could I explain that her pain contributed to my life’s philosophy about our responsibility to a hurting world?
How could I convey—without sounding creepy—that I would never forget her.
So, instead, I gave her the biggest tip I have ever given anyone and left quietly.