“Rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself”. – Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803-1882
“Would you like to see my ID?”
I don’t know her. I have never met her before.
She stands uncomfortably close to me as I sit at a table at the Avenue Bread Luncheonette in Bellingham, Washington. My friend, Brian, sits across from me. He doesn’t know her either. She is talking directly at me, not to Brian.
Again, staring intently at me, she asks, “Would you like to see my ID?”.
She hands me a sticky, dirty driver’s license. Her name is Susan. She is from Indiana. She is twenty-seven years old.
Susan is unkempt, which is being kind. Her breath is extremely bad and her teeth are rotting. She has sunken eyes and a gaunt appearance. Her blonde hair is short and matted. A lack of attention to personal hygiene is evident. As she stands there, repeatedly scratching at sores on her face and arms, she displays all the signs of compulsive behavior common to crystal meth addicts experiencing the aftermath of a "bump". If she sleeps at all, she sleeps on the street or wherever she can find a place to lie down. Once an attractive young woman, crystal meth, time on the street, and a poor diet, have taken their toll.
Crystal Methamphetamine is a highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. It’s not a naturally occurring substance, like other opioids. Instead, it’s manufactured in meth labs or home workshops. It’s called crystal because it looks like glass fragments or shiny, blue-white rocks. It is also known on the street as “ice” or “shards”. It is chemically similar to amphetamine, a drug used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, a sleep disorder.
Meth addicts often take it in a binging fashion, referred to as a “bump” or “run”. There’s an initial flood of dopamine causing almost instant euphoria which lasts five minutes to an hour. Because this initial euphoric effect is short-lived, users often binge on the drug by increasing the quantity used, trying to prolong the rush. This is followed by effects that can last for up to twelve hours. Chronic abuse can cause anhedonia, a reduced ability to feel pleasure, resulting from damage to dopamine and serotonin nerve terminals. A unique manifestation of crystal meth abuse is the development of “punding”, Swedish slang for block-head. It’s compulsive performance of non-goal directed repetitive activity such as taking apart and reassembling objects, incessantly sorting things, counting small items, or grooming oneself.
I could only surmise that, outside of her meth use, Susan has not known any form of pleasure for a long time. She has lost her smile both figuratively and literally. She desperately wants me to know that she is alive, a fellow human being. The intervals between runs must be intensely isolating and painful during which she battles with being invisible, being a nobody. She would be happy if anyone acknowledged her and has her ever-ready ID as proof of her existence.
I ask if she lives nearby but she doesn’t respond, just stares at me without flinching as if trying to figure out who I am. Then, unexpectedly, she mentions that she was clean at one point but doesn’t say for how long. She sheepishly mentions that she needs help. When I ask what kind of help, she looks away and stares blankly at the wall behind me. I struggle to endure her presence and listen as if watching for signs of an approaching storm. Meth users can be aggressive and impulsive. This is not what I expected during a quiet lunch with my friend. I want her to disappear, go away. I want to deny her existence as much, or more than, she wishes me to acknowledge it. Why did she come to our table and why is she talking directly to me?
I see her but I don’t see her as she wishes to be seen. I see her, like most people, as a burnt-out meth addict looking for a handout. I briefly contemplate asking her if she would like a sandwich and consider asking her to take a seat. But Brian, although silent, is clearly uneasy and gives me a look that says, “don’t engage with her”. He lives here and is more familiar with the local homeless. Susan is a bit scary. The look in her eyes tells me she is not entirely present.
I hand her back the ID and we spend a few more minutes in conversation. She informs me that her family doesn’t want anything to do with her but she has friends who protect her. She admits she needs to find a way to get off the street but can’t seem to find the energy to stop doing drugs. She has tried, but it “doesn’t work”. I know, as well as her, that a “pure” intention to quit ends when the good time starts. A perverse insistence on ones’ right to choose to act against ones’ best interests is found in all individuals but finds its perfection in addicts and alcoholics.
I consider offering her some cash but then think it a bad idea. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, she suddenly turns towards the door. As I too often do, I give little thought to what I say until after I have already said it and frame a cheerful “goodbye and good luck” as if she were an old friend. She leaves without another word and without looking back.
I am sad and relieved when she is gone. Relieved from my anxiety connected with our encounter and sad as I watch someone walking towards the edge of a cliff. I could scream about the danger ahead but it’s of no use, she won’t hear me. I am doubtful Susan can avoid the destiny that will surely overtake her. My only hope is that she finds a shard of strength that persists from her days of innocence and it becomes a catalyst for change to save her life.
Total world population has recently passed eight billion (world population clock - https://population.io). Demographer Carl Haub, with the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C., has calculated, using 50,000 B.C.E. as a starting point, that including the eight billion people now alive, around 109 billion individuals have walked this earth. Reflecting on this astounding figure, one is forced to consider the profound insignificance of any single life when compared to the vast tapestry of human experience. Susan, I, and indeed you—each of us represents just a minuscule fragment in the grand mosaic of humanity. This thought is humbling and highlights the piffling and transient nature of our existence.
But it also frames a question, asked in clear bell-like tones, as to what is my responsibility to people like Susan, or anyone for that matter, that I encounter in my daily life? Within these serendipitous encounters, these fleeting timeless moments, lies a chance to consider a broader perspective that transcends my individuality and explore the significance of our shared journey. Unfortunately, all too often, the prevailing culture of self-absorption and the ceaseless chatter within my head forestalls any effort to truly connect with others and I fail to seize this introspective opportunity.
What should I care if Susan walks off a cliff? What is she to me but a stranger I briefly met? Even if I did care, and for some reason I do, she won’t listen to me and keeps walking towards the edge. To whom or what does she listen?
Should I have honored Susan with the same attitude and attention I might welcome a celebrity, a princess, a rock star? Who is more deserving of my attention? Who is more in need of a human connection? Why do I so often resist what comes uninvited and at other times open my arms wide in acceptance? Isn’t every chance encounter a meeting with oneself? Can I, quieting my scattered mental clamor, see and hear what the moment is presenting? The substance of the tweet is within reach according to my ability to listen.
In each of these encounters, fear and hope intertwine. I find myself fearing the ordinary while admiring the renowned—an unbalanced perspective that falls short. It’s no way to be. I often do not get to choose who walks with me nor the duration of their presence. Some individuals bring me joy and camaraderie, while others prompt an urgent desire for distance. Nevertheless, as each encounter unfolds, it becomes paramount to uphold a consistent demeanor and response.
The search for some holy grail that will finally lend meaning to my life has been a focus of much of my journey. But a lovely friend of mine suggested that the meaning of our lives is found in the daily interactions with others; our friends, our family, our colleagues, and complete strangers. It can be the smallest interaction, just a few words exchanged with a cashier at the supermarket or with a meth addict standing uncomfortably close to your table. It needn’t be, and often is not, anything grandiose, just an acknowledgement of our mutual humanity.
Our deportment and actions have the power to impact the lives of others although it is on no account certain we will leave an impression. Some raging fires are never noticed. But the smallest spark of compassion and acknowledgement may ignite the alchemy of transformation and make a positive difference in another’s life. A flare of indifference only adds to the conflagration standing in front of me and we both are scorched. It is imperative that I remain mindful of the sparks I strike and the fires I set.
It may well be that in the context of 109 billion lives, my life is indeed inconsequential, a hill of beans, and it is most assuredly transitory. But within each life there are no ordinary moments, just moments made sacred, and moments profaned.
“We only live, only suspire, consumed by either fire or fire”.
 T. S. Eliot – Little Gidding