What is the worth of a person? How can we measure the value of a man or woman? Is it measured by financial success? Or by fame? One of the tenants of my religion is to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That means every person, even the basest and lowest among us, has value. I’ve come to realize that each person, no matter how low their circumstances, has their own story. Each person has a gift to give me if I have the ears and heart to hear it. I believe that we cannot truly respect and value ourselves unless we’ve learned to see the human dignity in others we meet on our journey through life. The itinerant worker has as much value as the corporate tycoon. The hobo is equal the worth of a millionaire.
I mention hobos specifically because I met a former hobo this past week. Ed and his wife came to dinner at my house, and he shared some of his story with me. He is married now, settled in a house, and recently retired from a job with the city. He’s a folk musician and he and his wife are part of a group that plays occasionally at local venues. He married his wife at a hobo convention. (Yes, there is a hobo convention in Britt, Iowa each August.) He speaks with great affection and passion about the time he spent riding the rails. He told me about some of the folks he met and is still friends with to this day. He talked about the value of the working men. (Did you know hobos are essentially itinerant workers and not homeless bums?) He shared some hobo songs and poetry. It was a truly amazing evening, and I feel changed by meeting him.
Here’s a story about another man of great worth who touched my life in a time of great need. It was the 1990’s and I had just been transferred by my company to a new city. I was to manage the local offices there, but they were in dreadful disarray. At this time, my job was often to go to the worst offices and clean them up. This was my third city in less than two years, so I was feeling a bit ragged anyway. I was alone here in this new city-my kids were in school elsewhere. It was a dark and cold November, and I was still living in a hotel because my apartment wasn’t yet ready. My new staff was distrustful—they knew I had been sent there to clean things up, and they were worried. Worst of all, I quickly discovered that one of them was stealing from the company, and our corporate security office was working with me to gather the evidence we needed to move against this person. Every day I went to work and tried to coach and encourage a change in behaviors. Each evening, after everyone went home, I stayed and audited records for discrepancies. When my eyes got blurry and I couldn’t think anymore, I went back to my hotel, usually getting lost along the way. It was a very bleak time for me.
Our office was located in a downtown office building with a parking deck next door. Each evening I made my way to my car in the cold and dark, feeling about as low as I could feel, and drove up to the parking attendant to pay. The attendant on duty in the evenings was a fellow named Emmet. He greeted me every day with a big smile, and asked about me, or joked a little, or traded a few words of conversation. He told me that he hadn’t worked there very long, and didn’t know how long he’d stay. Perhaps he would move to where his daughter lived. That was the only personal thing I knew about him.
Emmet was my lifeline. His was the only friendly face I saw during those days, and his kindness to me was my salvation. I got through every day at work, doing what I needed to do, knowing that at the end of the day, someone would offer me a smile and a kind word. Had it not been for that one man—essentially a stranger to me, as I was to him—I don’t think I would have stuck it out there. All these years later, I still remember Emmet. I can weep with gratitude at the thought of the gift this humble, kind man gave me.
Things got better for me as time went on in this new city. The office got on a firmer footing, and business started to improve. A few of the original staff stuck it out with me, and we built solid relationships. I got settled in my home, and began to make friends. The winter ended, and spring came. Eventually I moved our offices to a more pleasant location in the suburbs. I never told Emmet how much he meant to me during those months. I never thanked him for doing not only what he was paid to do, but what his idea of being human called him to do. I so wish I had. About a year later I went back to the parking deck, but was told that Emmet had moved on. My opportunity was lost.
Just an itinerant lot attendant, probably with a history of drifting from job to job. What could be the value of such a seemingly insignificant life? I know what my answer would be.
How can we measure the value of our own lives? I can only hope that, like Emmet, I may have touched a life or two with significance before I shuffle off this mortal coil. I also hope that I will always forego judgment and look at each person I meet as a human being with value and dignity. And that I will never again miss an opportunity to let someone know that they made a difference in my life.