I didn’t know that he and I were on the same train. At the Othello stop, I got out of the last car and walked towards the front of the train. The morning chill seeped through my coat and I slid my hands into my pockets.
The doors of the train were still open, and there he was: A baggy black hoodie was pulled up over his head, but it did not conceal the wide grin on his face. He was leaning forward in his seat and waving his arm and hand at me like a little kid.
The doors were closing when I waved back. I was still smiling when the train whirred back into motion and passed me.
It was the gracious and respectful patient!
There were several men loitering outside the clinic, the red and yellow leaves of autumn scraping the sidewalk around their feet.
He saw me first.
“Hi! Doctor … Yang! It’s so good to see you!”
“Hi!” I greeted. He looked well, though the gaps between his teeth were wider now compared to when I last saw him.
The two men who were standing by him looked at me with curiosity.
“It really is good to see you,” he said, taking a step towards me. “Can I hug you?”
“No,” I said, “but we can bump fists.”
My fist met his in a gentle bump. One of the other men cocked his head to the side, his face perplexed. He slowly extended his arm towards me, his hand in a loose fist. My fist-bumped his, too. His head began to bob in a slow nod as he kept his arm extended.
“I’m doing really good,” my former patient said. Over a year had passed since we had last seen each other. During his many months in jail, he had been under my care. “I’m off probation! I haven’t been in the hospital in over six months! I have a place to live, and I see my counselor here every week.”
“That’s fantastic!” I exclaimed. “I’m happy to hear that.”
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m doing well, thank you,” I answered. He didn’t press further when I redirected the focus back onto him. “It is wonderful to see you out here and not in that other place.”
“Jail?” Oh well. I at least tried to keep that out of the conversation. “Oh yeah, I haven’t been in jail in a long time.”
“Which is good news. I’ve got to go inside to meet someone.”
“Oh, okay, Dr. Yang! I need to check in with my counselor, too. It really is nice to see you! Bye!”
Perhaps it is foolish to assume that people are inherently good. How can we believe that people are good when they burst into houses of worship to kill people? Why should we trust that people have good intentions when they send explosives in the mail? When people encourage violence against people who don’t share their beliefs, language, or skin color, isn’t it unwise to have faith in our fellow humans?
The charges filed against the two men described above weren’t trivial:theft criminal trespass resisting arrest assault
I shared a gentle fist bump with one of them. I know what injuries he had inflicted with that fist in the past.
And yet. And yet!
People ask me how often I encounter people who were under my care in jail. They ask me that question with concern; they worry that these chance encounters will lead to danger.
I see former patients from jail about once every one to two months. Most of the time, they see me first, greet me by name, and then go about their business. Sometimes they provide a short update about their lives. Sometimes they make a point of thanking me.
So is it truly foolish to assume that people are inherently good?
Let’s be clear: There are a few individuals who have been, are, or will be under my care who I do not ever want to see on the outside. If I do see them, I cross the street, duck into a building, or otherwise try to disappear. I trust that some of these individuals have probably seen me without my awareness. In those instances, ignorance is bliss and I am thankful that nothing transpired.
Things change, people change, circumstances change. Sometimes we look at the world around us and despair: People suffer, injustices big and small happen to the best of people, individuals we don’t like or respect collect more and more power.
And yet. And yet!
Consider the people in your life who inspire you to do good things. There are people you see and who see you: Friends, family, coworkers. They do things you admire; they say things that spark ideas; who they are makes you want to be different and do better. This happens to you every day.
Then consider the people in your life who you see, but they do not see you: Leaders, artists, and other public figures. Despite the absence of a personal relationship, they also inspire you to be different and do better.
Realize that there are people who you do not see, but they see you. You, too, can inspire others to be different and do better.
We may feel like we don’t have much influence, but we all have influence within the three-foot radii around us. We can choose to amplify the inherent good within us to help ourselves, others, and the world around us—even just the world within our three-foot radius—be different and do better.
Yes, the suffering and injustices continue, but if we do nothing, then we surrender to those who do choose to do something.
Many of these men in jail have and will continue to inspire me to be different and do better. Maybe they will inspire you, too.
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